In this excerpt Jett and her dad have dinner together as she tells him about how she and her friends challenged a guest speaker at her class that came to speak making some surprisingly racist claims about the the Civil War and Revisionist History. The night before, she and her friends got together and printed out all of their research about the Civil War, the Constitution and segregation so they could refute what they heard the speaker was going to talk about. Jett tells her dad how it went in class and they have a heart to heart about the importance, and the risks, of challenging the status quo and standing up to injustice. It’s an important moment that will affect how Jett views the challenges she will face in the future.
They got to the front of the line, picked up their food, and went to a table and sat down. Jett ordered a salad and a cup of yogurt and some fruit on the side. Her dad ordered a pastrami sandwich with Thousand Island dressing and cole slaw.
When they got to the table, he looked at her and asked, “So, how did that thing in school go today?”
“Oh my gosh dad, it was weird. This guy came in. An attorney. Said he knows you. He knew I was your daughter. I don’t think he likes you, or me either by the way, I’ll explain later. Anyway, he did this whole thing on slavery, and the reasons for the Civil War and then segregation that was supposed to make the South look like the good guys and the North the bad guys. It was so racist it made me want to vomit. He had this thing where he was saying that slaves actually had it good. He called slavery ‘alternatively compensated labor’ or something really stupid like that. He tried to make the case that segregation and slavery would somehow work for everyone if it was done right and done fairly. It was awful. He made no sense, yet I know lots of people really believe what he says. He knew we had a rebuttal because he saw our powerpoint that we handed out before class, so he was ready. Said we could go ahead and state our case so he can tell us how we’re wrong.
Then, it was awesome. We started presenting our research and talked about all the stuff we talked about last night when we were working on it. We matched him point for point, refuting everything with documented research. He was speechless. Then he got frustrated and started insulting us. That’s when he said he knew you from court. He said that I was just like you because, as he said, I ‘don’t know when to keep my mouth shut,’”
“I see that as a compliment,” her dad said.
“I know!! That’s exactly what I said, that my dad would take that as a compliment. Anyway, he then tried to convince us that black people are inferior intellectually and superior in terms of athletics and entertainment, so that’s what black people should do. He said Asians were good at math so they should be engineers and such but white men are smarter so they should be leaders and white women, like all women, he said, are really just good nurturers. It was so racist and misogynistic. We had a discussion about that and he said diversity doesn’t work and it was bad for me because I don’t really belong anywhere because I’m biracial. He tried to use bullying in school to make his point, saying that there was never a bullying problem before I came along and the bullying is just a symptom of what is wrong with diversity. Then the WHOLE CLASS turned against him and started talking about how there’s always been bullying and it’s just a small group of guys that bully literally everyone else, not just me. I said it’s because they are racist jerks, not because of any societal thing. Then the whole class took my side and talked about how I belong with them because I’m their friend and we hang out together. Melinda, who had been with me making points all along even googled a book he cited and found the statistical shortcomings of the book and refuted his use of that book as proof of what he was saying. Then he just got mad and started griping at all of us, especially me. He said it was all my fault that everyone has these ‘liberal’ ideas now. That’s when our teacher stepped in and told him that we’ve been nothing respectful to him while he has very rude to us and told him to leave the classroom. So he said that he was going to meet with the Superintendent about this. Then he left. It was crazy.”
“Okay. Well, we have a meeting with the Superintendent at 3:00pm Monday. You, me, that guy, Mr Hitchens, and Melinda and her parents, along with that Greg kid that was over and his parents too.”
Jett looked defeated all of a sudden, “oh,” she simply said, “ I guess we’re in trouble now?”
“Don’t worry about it kid. You did good. I’m proud of you. Every act of civil disobedience, no matter how well intentioned and how dignified in its execution, has a consequence. Blowback, it’s called. We’ll manage it. Ashley already spoke to Melinda’s mom. She understands, and she feels you kids did the right thing too. We can invite Diana, if necessary. She’s chomping at the bit to get involved. Especially since she has generally destroyed that attorney in court many times. That’s why he hates me. He has tried to break me down on the stand more than once and it just backfires on him each time. Now you broke him down in the classroom. I guess he just feels our family is out to get him or something.”
“It would help if he wasn’t such a racist,” Jett said.
“Yea. It would. But people are what they are. He probably doesn’t think he is a racist. He longs for a status quo that’s been disappearing for decades. Now his generation is trying one last time to make a huge, coordinated push to bring it back; and they are having some success because they’ve focused on the areas where they’ll get the least resistance. Creating that school district/zone, having this guy going to those classes. But then he runs into you, the daughter of someone he sees as a nemesis, and you unite at least one class and they call him out, publicly. He’s not mad at you. He’s mad at what you represent. You represent a future that he fears. A future in which he doesn’t get to dictate what people say and think; a future in which people know he’s wrong. And he knows he’s wrong, but wrong is all he’s ever known how to be, so he can’t change.
“Jett, you’re gonna find that people fear two things: Change and not fitting in. You are change. And they fear you because you won’t conform to fit in. And you shouldn’t. You should be yourself and keep doing what you’re doing. Because that’s way people will accept change. Your friends see it. It’s always the kids that see it first, because they have fresh eyes, that aren’t clouded by the stupidity of bigotry and fear. They’re changing. Even Principle Preston is changing. Your teachers have always seen it. But a lot of people will cling to a status quo even if they don’t like it. And they will conform to something they don’t like if it seems like everyone else is doing it. These guys are using that to change the world back to a status quo they were comfortable with; where they had the privilege and all the advantages, and everyone just quietly accepted it. You are what’s standing in the way of that. Sure, you’re just a kid. A girl in school. But you represent something greater. You’re proof that the bad guys are wrong, and they always have been. You force them to confront that. Just by being yourself. I didn’t plan for that. I’d rather you not have to deal with that, but I’m not going to let you deny it or succumb to it either. You are in the situation you are in and I’m proud of how you’re handling it.”
Jett smiled and a tear ran down her cheek and then put her head down. She picked at her salad and looked up at her dad again. “Thanks dad. But how do I do it?”
“Just keep being yourself. That’s all you have to do. It’s all you’ve ever had to do. You’re smart, you’re strong and you have a good heart. That’s what’s always guided you. Just listen to yourself. And if you get stuck and don’t know what to do, we’re always here for you. Me, Ashley, Diana. We want to make the world a better place too. We’ve seen how bad it can be, but with you, we see how good it can be too. In that way you’ve kind of rescued us from being jaded and cynical about everything.”
Jett teared up again. “I didn’t think I was that important. I’m just a girl,” she said.
“You’re more important to us than you’ll ever truly understand. We’re family and you’re the kid. Everything I do, I think about you and your future and what it means. Ashley too.”
“Ok. You’re being all sentimental. Ashley said you used to be a tough guy. What happened?”
“You kid. You happened,” he said, smiling at his daughter, “and Monday we’re going to walk in there with our heads up and we’re going to stand our ground. We’re going to be polite and respectful but we’re going to be clear that we don’t get pushed around by some two-bit retired attorney who passed his prime decades ago and is now reduced to peddling half rate bogus propaganda to a bunch of high school kids. Ok?”
“OK. Thanks dad. I’m worried about this meeting though.”
“I understand. But try not to worry. We’ll get through it together. We always do.”