What I Think I Know About The Covington, Kentucky High Schoolers

International Pressing Pausers have to be especially confused by what’s going on in the (dis)United States. I confess, I don’t fully understand what’s going on in the picture below which has prompted an intense national debate. At first glance, the central teen’s smile communicates a certain immaturity, arrogance, and disrespect for the elderly Native American in front of him.

Anyone that has worked with teens for any length of time can tell you that most are immature, some are arrogant, and a few disrespectful. So why the national outrage over one possible example from Covington, KY?

The picture probably fired up lefties because Native Americans deserve unmitigated respect for enduring centuries of oppression largely at the hands of white men. It most likely fired up conservatives because they believe the Left overreacts to any form of conservatism, thus opening themselves up to the criticism that they aren’t nearly as tolerant as they claim. Historical ignorance + a certain hypocrisy + ubiquitous social media = intense national debate.

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What I think I know about the photographed high schoolers is best explained through a short story. It’s the mid-90s, when I was a young prof at a liberal arts college in Greensboro, NC, I lead a First Year orientation mountain biking trip in West Virginia. By the end of Day One I was exasperated by the incessant immaturity of my charges. The young men in particular were crass, cliquish, and careless. Despite West Virginia’s natural beauty, I was dreading the remainder of the trip.

Then a funny thing happened. I started to have individual conservations with the participants one after another. And I was blown away by the discrepancy between their group and individual selves. One-on-one, or even two-on-one, at meals, in the jacuzzi, alone on the trail, I found them imminently likable. It was a powerful reminder of what I had forgotten about my teenage self and the hundreds of high schoolers I had taught previously. Teen males, a terribly insecure species, routinely bring out the worst in each other. The mathematical term is lowest common denominator (LCD). At it’s worst, it can contribute to a mob mentality.

When I first saw the “Covington” picture, the first thing I zeroed in on was the students in the background who were smiling and laughing at their classmate’s behavior. Classic LCD. Is susceptibility to negative peer pressure an excuse for immaturity, arrogance, disrespect; hell no, but it is reason to view the incident as more of a teachable moment than a criminal act.

Even without knowing the broader context, which is what now is being endlessly debated, the educator in me believes the teens deserve a modicum of grace. To learn about Native American history and people’s criticisms of their actions. In the expectation that if they ever find themselves in a similar situation they behave differently.