I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, praying, and agonizing over the Covington Catholic High School students and their actions in D.C. over the weekend. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized why the situation had wormed its way into my brain so deeply. It’s because I recognized what a missed opportunity the confrontation between the students and the Native American elder Nathan Phillips represents. It’s also because I recognize the faces of the boys in that crowd—not specifically, since I don’t know any of the boys or their families personally, but I recognized them in the sense that I recognize the feelings of superiority and privilege that is evident in their actions. I recognize the impulse on the part of the “smirking student” to step in and try to “diffuse the situation” (if we can take his PR-firm-assisted statement at face value), and the “white savior” complex that fools a young boy into thinking that he and he alone can step in front of an elder, stand still and smile, and somehow magically create a better situation for everyone. Take away the MAGA hats, the privilege and the wealth of these boys and I could have been one of them. I remember being a teenager, full of my own self-confidence and ignorant of my privileged place in society, and I probably would have thought that I could “diffuse” such a situation as well. I might have done it differently, but I still recognize the impulse, bred into young white males in our society, that says that we are the ones who can still every storm, and that our bodies are the key to keeping everyone safe in any situation.
So, I’m speaking from a place of relative understanding here, and I am speaking about something with which I can relate. As a white male in American society, I am the teenage punk staring down an elderly man, all while thinking that my very presence is the thing that everyone needs to just calm down and feel safe.
The other perspective that I bring to this situation is that of a person who pretty much chaperones young people for a living. As a college chaplain, I spend a lot of my time taking young people to places they haven’t been before, exposing them to the wonders of the world around them. A good portion of my time is spent not only working with students on campus, but taking them off campus so that they can learn new lessons from people who are very different from everyone else they know. That’s why I spend at least one week a year taking students on Habitat for Humanity work trips, and why I sponsor interfaith trips and retreats that take students out of their comfort zones and make them confront new and unusual situations, interesting people, and fascinating places. It is only by going to the edge of our experiences that we can truly learn about the diversity of the world and its people, and coming alongside students as they experience those kinds of edge moments is one of the greatest joys of my ministry practice.
It is with great heaviness of heart then that I ask, “Where the hell were the chaperones?”
Several observations come to mind about the incident, and points where responsible chaperones would have come in handy:
- “Hey guys, how about let’s leave the MAGA hats on the bus or in the hotel room while we go about the city? We’re representing our school, not a particular political agenda, and those hats might represent a political agenda to some people.”
- “I notice that there are some protest groups around the Lincoln Memorial today. That’s not unusual for D.C., so let’s all be prepared as we get off the bus by being respectful and mindful of their right to protest and demonstrate. Don’t engage with any demonstrators, even if they say something to you directly. The best thing to do is ignore it and move on. We’re here to see the sights and to participate in our own demonstration, so let’s just let them participate in theirs. If anyone has any questions about what to do while we’re out there, please come see me or one of the other chaperones.”
- “No Billy, I don’t think we should do our school fight song or chants in order to drown out those guys over there. We may disagree with them, but they have a right to be here just like us, and the best thing we can do right now is ignore them. If we engage, we’ll just provoke people, and that’s not what we want to do.”
- “Fellas, let’s move along and go see President Lincoln. I’d like to get a group picture before we leave, and standing around the statue of Lincoln would be a great shot!”
- “I think that gentleman is part of the Indigenous People’s March that is happening this weekend. Let’s listen quietly while he drums and prays through song. Maybe after he’s done, we can see if he would have some time for us to ask him some polite questions about his culture and beliefs.”
- “Everyone, this has been a great visit to the Lincoln Memorial. We saw a lot of things out there today—let’s talk over lunch about what we observed and learned.”
OK, so that’s a really idealistic way of looking at things, but at any of the moments along the way—when the Black Israelites were preaching and shouting at the boys, when they saw the Indigenous Peoples March participants, even when their massive group was blocking the stairs to the monument—at any of those moments, a good chaperone was needed to step in, move the crowd of boys along, and remind them that they are not there to “diffuse” anything, and that their engagement with others in a highly tense situation like the one at the Lincoln Memorial that day would only add fuel to the fire. It was a teachable moment, and by letting it pass without comment or guidance, the chaperones let down the boys in their charge that day. The chaperones of the group, who have been largely silent during all of the media backlash, are the people most responsible for this incident, and I find it hard to understand how they could have let the situation get that far out of hand.
When I worked at scout camp, one of the concepts we talked a lot about was teachable moments. In fact, the entire scouting model is based on the idea that taking someone into the woods and exposing them to unfamiliar situations is one giant learning opportunity—“A game with a purpose,” is what Baden-Powell called it. We were taught by our scouting leaders that every moment can be a teachable moment, if we are mindful and aware of what’s happening around us. I keenly remember being taught how to tie a taut line hitch the proper way after having a tent nearly collapse on me during a rain storm. That’s a lesson that I’ll never forget! In the same way, the boys from Covington Catholic found themselves in the middle of a teachable moment, and one (or more) of the adults in their midst let the opportunity go by without helping them learn from the situation.
Perhaps the adults in the group thought they were teaching the boys by letting them handle the situation on their own. Developmentally, that’s probably the worst thing they could have done that day. Teenagers are not psychologically prepared enough to deal with a tense situation like that on their own. Some amount of self-sufficiency is necessary for young people to develop properly, but allowing the situation to spiral out of control like it did was not a good teaching method at all. It’s the responsibility of fully-developed adults to help young people process new situations and encounters, not to stand back and watch what happens. When I work with emerging adult college students, I often take a back seat and let them make their own mistakes, but even I would have stepped in if any of my students found themselves placed in a situation like the one in D.C. That’s what a chaperone does.
So, I’m not trying to excuse the students of Covington Catholic for their loutish and rude behavior. Regardless of the motives, their actions as I saw them (yes, I have seen the extended director’s cut of the videos, so please don’t send them to me) were inexcusable. What I am trying to say is that the tragedy in all of this is that these boys now will find themselves feeling like they are victims of the media and society, rather than having had the opportunity to learn from the adults in their midst. Their adult leaders let them down, they missed the opportunity to make the situation in to a teachable moment, and they are primarily responsible for all the actions that led to the confrontation that took place on the steps of one of our country’s most revered monuments. In what could have been a great opportunity to take the authority given to them as chaperones, these adults abandoned their duties in favor of letting things play out, and in doing so they created a situation that needn’t have been that big of a deal. I get it, being a chaperone, especially in tense situations like that one, can be a tough gig. Maybe they were tired from a long trip and a long day. Maybe they just wanted a moment’s peace so they walked away for just a second before all hell broke loose. I get it. I’ve been there. But when the young people with whom you have been entrusted start to go off the rails, it’s your job as the adult in the group to pull on the reins and get them back on the bus and debrief them so that they know how to handle things like this as adults. The smirking boy didn’t need to be the white savior who stood up in front of the native elder—he needed an adult who could show him how to be an adult by engaging the situation in a totally different way.
My hope is that this will be a teachable moment for all of us in this country, about the responsibility we have to help our young people grow up to be thoughtful, caring adults. If we skip out on that responsibility, we will have abdicated our right to teach the young people we work with, and we will bear the blame for the society that they build out of the poor lessons they have had to learn all on their own.