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A Yankee teacher: My battle with the Confederate flag

Former teacher Mark Franek taught English for 20 years, including a stint in Alabama where the question of the Confederate flag arose in his class.

Now an attorney in Philadelphia, Franek discusses how he dealt with the divisiveness and how his students responded.

By Mark Franek

This week’s news about the Confederate flag reminds me of my own battles with the symbol.

I’m a liberal white Yankee, born and raised in central Pennsylvania, and the son of a teacher and an engineer.  My first full-time job after college took me to Montgomery, AL., where I taught English from 1993-97 at a prestigious independent school founded in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Pep rallies in the mid-90s at my school often consisted of a tiny pocket of black students in the back row of a white-dominated set of bleachers, despite some teachers’ repeated entreaties to the student body to mix it up.

I was still too intellectually naïve to grasp the complexity of institutional racism and the power that a diverse student body — beyond tokenism — can have on a dialogue about race. But I had good instincts and good teaching mentors.

During the spring of my rookie teaching year, one of my high school students taped a small paper version of the Confederate flag to the back wall of my classroom. After class, I noticed some commotion at the back of a room.  Another student ripped down the flag and tossed it in the trash. The next day, a larger version of the flag appeared (cloth), this time in the student lounge. And another student ripped it down. Then some students started putting stickers of the flag on the outside of their lockers and on their school books and folders. This precipitated an even angrier conflict as more students, white and black, entered the fray.  As far as I could tell, the administrators stayed out of the conflict.

I took the proliferation of Confederate flags — and growing dissent, albeit, in the minority — as my first teachable moment inspired by events outside of the curriculum.

I asked my students to write formal “business” letters to the head of school following the flow of a classical argument (introduction, narration, confirmation, concession, summation).  The question presented was whether the flag should be permitted to be displayed in school. The confirmation and summation paragraphs needed to defend or criticize the actions of their peers. The letter, however, needed to contain a concession paragraph.

The concession part was key — the instructional equivalent of Harper Lee’s admonition in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Atticus Finch says to Scout, his daughter: “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

After the letters were written, we had a classroom discussion. At the outset, I asked students to start by sharing their concessions. Later, I let all students argue their original positions. Luckily, by that time in the school year, I had managed to build up a certain amount of trust, transplanted Yankee that I was. I only entered the discussion to nudge it along, and I kept my opinions mostly to myself.

Many students argued the flag symbolized Southern pride, tradition, and heritage, but conceded that black students (and some white students) may be offended when confronted with the flag in public. Some students argued the flag symbolized racism and bigotry, which no amount of clarification or redefinition can erase, but conceded that white students, at least some of them, may not intend racism or bigotry when displaying the flag in public.

One white student went further and argued the flag was also offensive to the school’s one black teacher. Then this student asked, somewhat rhetorically—in a footnote in her letter to the head of school — why the school employed only one non-white teacher but predominantly black cafeteria and busing staff. This is what you get from time to time as a teacher: A voice that displays an intellectual acumen and conviction years ahead of its time.

Eventually the flags were removed from the school, not by an opposing group or by the administration, but by the students who originally displayed them. These students, most of them white, privileged, and deeply conservative, demonstrated empathy by “walking around” in another person’s “skin.”  They considered the issue from all sides and ultimately determined that citizens have an obligation as an educated people not only to tolerate the beliefs of their peers, but also to make sure that we don’t offend their dignity as well.

As one student put it in his letter — which I managed to keep all these years —“I may not understand exactly how the Confederate flag affects the dignity of black people, but I think their need to remove the symbol from school is more important and justifiable than our desire to rally around it.  Take the flag down and tack it to your bedroom wall. That’s loyalty enough.”

Since I am no longer a teacher and this is not a lesson, I can offer my unadulterated opinion. The times they are a-changin', to quote Bob Dylan. You can get with the program or sink like a stone.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.