When gaining your sight becomes a ‘big deal’

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“Mom, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Among all the impassioned words, among all the emotional pleas I heard during Monday’s community rally and Chatham Board of Education meeting, those — conveyed by a Chatham County mother, Christy Wagner, whose son was one of those students “sold” during a mock slave auction at J.S. Waters School — hit me the hardest.

Wagner was one of 21 people who addressed the school board during the hour-long public comment section of the board’s standing-room-only meeting, which was held at the county’s courthouse. That meeting followed the rally on the grounds at Pittsboro’s First Presbyterian Church, which drew at least 100 people.

Each of the speakers I heard and those I spoke with at the two events — maybe 35 people in all — was uniquely eloquent. The pastors. The students. The parents. Concerned citizens who have little direct connection with public schools.

I earmarked 20 or 25 comments speakers made as especially memorable as I furiously scribbled notes throughout the night. But when Wagner recounted her conversation with her son to the school board — after finding out about the incident from another parent — it stopped me in my tracks.

It took me back to my childhood, growing up in Lee County and seeing, and hearing, how my white classmates dealt with my Black classmates’ color. I recall no cruelty, no taunting, no overt acts of racism. I was taught that “all men are created equal,” that we’re the same in God’s eyes.

But somehow, I knew differently. What I was taught by my parents on one hand, and what I saw and heard from other adults in my life on the other, provided a subtle contradiction. It was in that contradiction that my sight became cloudy. It wasn’t that I didn’t see, but rather that I didn’t recognize.

We were equal, was the message — but we were also different. That was made clear as well, and that belief reflected, in turn, the way I chose to see.

Correcting that, setting that right, took not only time but teaching and lots of reflection — to the point where I see now, and recognize what I was once oblivious to. And as importantly, I understand now that perspective has limitations. Some forms of blindness never fully heal.

Wagner addressed the sadness of that reality when she spoke to the board.

“Some days,” she said, “I feel anger about what happened. Some days I feel sadness trying to grasp why we’re still having these issues in 2022. Honestly, some days I feel guilty and question if I’m doing a good job raising my son. I never thought in a million years I would be standing here talking about my son experiencing racism in middle school.”

Yet, here we are. Why wasn’t it a big deal to Wagner’s son? Why weren’t such actions a “big deal” when I grew up? Maybe because it was so commonplace. Maybe because so many of us with poor eyesight weren’t on the receiving end?

In Chatham County, for all the talk about unity, I’ve never felt separation and “apartness” more strongly than I did Monday night: in the same courtroom where a month earlier parents of students decried the board’s (and many of the rest of us) terminal “wokeness” over masks and COVID-19 protocols with sneers and angry threats, a different group of parents cried out over an issue that too many of us have shrugged off like a passing cloud in an otherwise crystalline sky.

One speaker, Pittsboro resident Tami Schwerin, said what has transpired isn’t a new problem — nor is it a black or brown problem, but rather “a white problem our ancestors inherited” — with behaviors repeated consciously and unconsciously from generation to generation.

It’s no wonder so many of the speakers on Monday talked about this series of events being a wake-up call, a pivot point, for our schools — and also for the community. Of a pattern that must be addressed once and for all. Of a toxicity that must be remedied. Of a failing on too many levels. Of a singular problem that must be worked until solved

Of a trauma that demands healing.

Those who spoke during this school board meeting had it right: We’re weary of having the same conversations over and over. What you do not address, you bless. It’s time to live out our values and keep these things from happening on our watch again.

And finally: this is a real chance to take a step so clear and unambiguous that no one can fail to see what is right and must be done.

And that’s where the key lies: seeing.

That is a big deal.

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  • Ron Snyder

    Keep your guilt to yourself. No one bothered to talk about what the classroom was trying to teach. Racism is a problem that has existed as long as man has existed, and is present in every society on Earth. It is not a white problem passed on to others, it is not a black, brown or yellow problem. Tami Schwerin perpetuates racism by suggesting otherwise.

    Wednesday, March 16 Report this