Sometimes we parents have to walk through valleys of disappointment, those difficult times when our children remind us they are young, naïve, selfish, impulsive, thoughtless – and entirely human. Then there are those times when they lead us to peaks of pride, where their flashes of maturity reassure us we did something right.
I don’t know the parents of the two Paden City High School students I wrote about last week, but I imagine they just walked through one of those valleys. They saw the pictures of their smiling sons in racially charged t-shirts floating around the Internet and heard the chatter spreading through their small town. It had to hurt.
The good news is that the two seniors who celebrated their last day of school by saying “N16GA We Made It” now have given their parents reason to be proud. They wrote heartfelt, and very public, letters of apology.
I’m not going to name the students here for the same reason I blurred their faces and kept them anonymous in my first article about this incident. While I believe they did something shameful, I was as bothered by the public shaming they had to endure online as I was by the t-shirts they wore.
But I am going to share excerpts from their apologies because I see in their words multiple character traits that all parents should want to instill in their children:
- Courage. I don’t know the circumstances behind these apologies – school officials may have required them as a consequence for violating the dress code – but it still took guts to write them. The young men apologized to the whole school and community, not just to the biracial student who initially exposed their behavior. They also owned the mistake on Facebook, which increased awareness of their bad behavior as people shared the apologies and potentially opened them to more criticism.
- Humility. Politicians and celebrities who say or do something stupid often issue a non-apology of the “I’m sorry you were offended” variety. The passive voice is a way of casting blame rather than humbling themselves. The PCHS seniors actively apologized. “I am deeply sorry for offending many of you,” one wrote. He later added, “There is no excuse for our actions.”
- Remorse. Both young men voiced regret for having soured the last day of school for seniors, “a very memorable day for many students, faculty and friends.” “I wish that I could change it all and rewind time to make this right,” one of them said, “but that will [be] my cross to bear that I cannot.”
- Perception. Although the teenagers weren’t insightful enough to grasp that their shirts might be offensive until after they revealed them, they appear to get it now. Here’s how one of them explained it: “We never for one second wore this shirt as a political or social message. We never thought of it as racism but now through the heartache of this experience realize that many people did perceive it as such.”
- Responsibility. It’s popular for people who embarrass themselves these days to play the victim card. The PCHS seniors could have lashed out at the student who exposed them, the people who added to their humiliation by sharing the photo of them in the t-shirts, or even me for turning a local story into a national one. They didn’t. They accepted responsibility for their actions. “We made these shirts without truly thinking of the [effect] it might have on others,” one of them said, “and I realize we were wrong to do so.”
The students’ apologies are all the more impressive because they had plenty of cover to avoid responsibility. The excuses that other people offered on their behalf ranged from gripes about racist double standards on the use of the n-word to hair-splitting over the meaning of “nigga” versus “nigger.”
On the latter point, the teenagers had national news in their favor. Two days after they donned “N16GA We Made It” t-shirts, comedian Larry Wilmore looked at President Obama during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and said, “Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga.”
The joke didn’t play well when Wilmore delivered it live, and it kept Washington buzzing for days. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who is black, was among those who criticized Wilmore. “Never before has the n-word been used to address the president,” he wrote. “At least, not in public and most definitely not to his face. That’s why Wilmore’s use of it was as shocking as it was disrespectful.”
But Obama, through his spokesman, defended Wilmore, and given the opportunity to apologize, the comedian doubled down by saying, in effect, that it was both a statement of black pride and a demonstration of free speech. “I have a free voice. I have a free mind. I have freedom of expression,” he said.
I’ll leave it to the intelligentsia to hash out that mess. I’m just glad the two seniors from my alma mater embraced the values of our small town and didn’t take their cues from the ruler of the free world or a famous comedian.