COMMENTARY: “Hear the Names”

“If our schools are better, so are we.”


My wife and I recently attended a granddaughter’s graduation at Eagle Bank Arena on the George Mason University campus. The ceremony, like all graduations, honored the 530-plus graduates.

Still, because it was held in a large arena, there was ample seating for families and friends to attend and celebrate with “their” graduates.  The ninety-minute event was festive as the arena filled with shouts, cheers, whistles, and, of course, the service itself.

After the emotional procession, pledge of allegiance, and the honor guard presentation of colors, the school choir sang a robust rendition of Home. Two students, chosen by their classmates, gave inspiring speeches. One speaker shared how her family came to America in middle school, how difficult that transition was for her, and what she learned living in her new country, through the COVID-19 epidemic, and as a school government officer. The other student also shared part of her personal story, how her parents’ divorce affected her, and how much her teachers helped her gain valuable education and learn to maneuver through life’s storms.

However, soon enough, the diploma awarding began. While a few graduates somersaulted across the stage to receive their diplomas and one or two held up banners, the awarding of the 530-plus diplomas moved smoothly.

But what I noticed were the names of the graduating seniors.

Here are a few surnames: Afzal, Bui, Crockett, Elouaradia, Harvey, Ramirez, Shamat, and Yusuf. It was a reminder that earlier, walking to the arena, my wife and I had noticed the various languages being spoken around us, and we easily stood out because of our white skin. Hearing the names of each graduate being so perfectly pronounced by a faculty member, I thought of the days of “massive resistance” in Virginia and Governor Byrd’s fight against public school integration.

I thought of the land taken by “eminent domain” from my wife’s father for a new high school in Falls Church, which opened in 1959. The Fairfax School Board, racist opponents of the 1954 Supreme Court decision to integrate America’s public schools, named the new school after a Confederate traitor to the United States.

However, according to the school’s website…

On October 26, 2017, the School Board voted to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School to Justice High School. The name Justice was chosen to honor three individuals for their roles in championing equal rights, inclusivity, and justice for all: Barbara Rose Johns, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Colonel Louis G. Mendez, Jr. A new mascot, ‘Wolves,’ was chosen by students in January 2018, and the building was rededicated on Friday, September 7, 2018.

I remembered that history as I listened to students Selam, Makeda, Edina, Rudaina, Yeabsta, and Habib, introduce distinguished guests and speakers and give speeches. Listening to those students, I wondered what the school board members who named a high school after a man who broke his oath to America’s Constitution would think as they heard the names, saw the graduates, and their families and friends.

Would those board members admit being wrong, or would they, like a Virginia school board recently did, vote that the original name was “history, not hate” and restore it to the school?

Listening to the names roll over the arena–Joes, Alexander, Ouala, and Jason—I felt no threat of replacement or fear of harm. Instead, I felt a prideful awe, pride and awe at the accomplishments of these young people, their families, and their friends, all in the country in which I was born.

The cheers and shouts of joy while calling names may not sound like an atmosphere conducive to peaceful reflection. Still, for me, it was because naming names was a stirring moment that displayed the human courage, dedication, and belief of the graduates and the audience.

Hearing the names Amy, Raul, and Yoselin, I felt that the right had won, and the hateful name for a school, and for so many others, has been removed and replaced by one that honors Justice. Contrary to the thinking of too many people during the early years of integration, our schools have survived and are better because of their diverse student bodies.

And if our schools are better, so are we.

___________

A condensed version of this commentary was published in the Washington Post on June 21, 2024, under the headline, Some ‘heritage’ should stay in the past. Virginia schools should move on.

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