This weekend, my son participated in the Mineral Point junior prom. The theme this year was “Always Remember Us This Way.” Let me assure you with all the cell phones and cameras flashing, we will likely have no problem remembering this gathering of the Class of 2020. As wonderful as an event like this is, I believe the formality and fanciness of the evening is no match for the glittering promise and bright potential of these students as they learn and grow beyond high school. Hopefully for all students prom is one sparkly pause in a blur of positive memories from high school. However, in our social media driven world, a simple photo taken at prom can leave a community undone before the strobe light stops spinning. Read on…
I remember exactly how I reacted when I saw the Baraboo prom photo for the first time last November. I recall literally saying out loud, “What the hell is wrong with them!” And my very next thought was, “Wait, could be us? What if that happened in Mineral Point?” That simple thought caused a flood of emotions – anger, fear, frustration, motivation, and anxiety. I reacted immediately.
Here’s the truth about me – I’m a reactor. When I see things that I believe demand attention, I get passionate and motivated to make something happen. Looking back, I’ve come to realize I come from a long lineage of reactors. My grandparents on both sides of my family have reacted similarity to me in their own lives. They ran for local office and volunteered for projects and committees on behalf of what they believe their community needed. Reflecting on our shared experiences make me feel connected and appreciative of how deeply rooted I am in this region. It feels important and reassuring that the strength of conviction and hard work of my grandparents here in southwest Wisconsin hasn’t been completely diluted by the wildly different life I’ve been privileged to live. We share the same passion and motivation although it looks a little different in this space and time.
I reacted to the Baraboo prom event by using social media and email to encourage (implore) local school leaders to use this incident as a teachable moment for our high school students. I believed the school would have the best resources and capabilities to tackle this type of insensitivity and intolerance. I think this belief is pretty typical in small communities. Whenever kids are involved in something questionable that throws us off course; we look to the school and the staff there to guide us all through. Which is probably why local schools often become the easy target for pretty much everything. Especially dicey topics that cause emotional reactions. We tend to offload emotions especially ones that make us uncomfortable. I know this because I’ve done it and not just with this issue and because I spent 6 years on the school board. More time and energy than I’d like to admit of those years was spent dealing with board members (myself included), teachers, parents and communities members unloading emotions and fears. It’s not the most effective way to govern a school district and it’s not a sustainable way to work through complex issues facing communities today, but it’s how we seem to do things.
A few days after I first saw the photo, my son brought me a new perspective. He said the name to one of the students and showed me the photo again. My feelings of fear and anger shifted immediately to sadness and curiosity, as I recognized that face. The situation felt very different now because I personally knew a child and his parents. They had lived here in Mineral Point. It’s startling how when new lenses, tinted with familiarity and trust, are placed in front of my eyes, the scary vision seen the first time quickly turns into a mind-bending puzzle where the photo now just looks like my son and his friends. This changed something for me.
With the encouragement of a couple of community members and a big dose of courage, I invited that familiar Baraboo student and his family back to Mineral Point. I wanted to learn from them and to let their story leave a positive impact on Mineral Point. And I wanted former neighbors and friends from Mineral Point to wrap them in a empathic embrace.
On Monday, March 4th, thirteen community members from Mineral Point came together to listen, support and learn. It was an emotional and thought-provoking night. The family’s still raw emotion and candor were beyond what I ever expected. Had I known how much pain still lingered, I probably wouldn’t have extended the invitation. But then we would have lost an experience to help them heal and an opportunity to share a little of their pain and grow from it.
For over an hour the family informed us on the concept of doxing – a practice used by fringe groups to publish personal information to gain momentum in creating social media and online firestorms. They spoke candidly about being parents enjoying the fun events of junior prom with their son. They showed frustrating compassion for an overzealous photographer who lacked judgment but didn’t have ill intent. They were open about the school district’s short-sightedness and uncertainty that left anxious students and ill-equipped teachers isolated and terrified. They discussed how the community’s differing abilities to take accountability, apologize and make amends has caused division and added pain. They talked about the hesitation when they have to tell people where they are from. They discussed mandatory training to learn about the Holocaust, while at the same time very few students’ and parents’ social media habits have changed. They pondered if the community would ever fully recover and shared appreciation when their neighboring rival school showed compassion. They surprised us by telling us the worst of the storm only lasted about five days because the news cycles are so fast nowadays it was there and gone before Baraboo even knew what hit them. They were confident though that the damage was done. One photo and the events that followed unraveled the close-knit community and those who identify as Thunderbirds. It will take years to mend the community and some of the people involved may never quite recover.
The opportunity to hear their story was a valuable lesson in complexity and perspective-taking. It was also an exercise in listening while reserving judgment. To simply take in another’s experience and point of view and feel with them. The evening closed with community members discussing and gathering thoughts to share with others. I can tell you when I left my head was spinning. I wanted to react. I wanted to do something because this new information demanded attention, but instead, I sat with my emotions a little while and reflected on my thoughts. Finally, I decided to respond, not react, by simply telling my own story and sharing it with all of you.
I also want to share a message from the family since our meeting last month. “When we spoke in Mineral Point it was very painful for all of us…but I really feel like it helped ease our pain to share it with people who care about us. To say that we have learned valuable lessons sounds like a ridiculous understatement. We have learned things that I never could have imagined and for that I am grateful. I honestly believe that someday this will all make sense and that there is good to come.”
Take courageous care,