By Judy Prather
As Baylor alums, if we are to honor our education, we will keep learning for our entire lives. Last Friday morning, it was Baylor students who were my teachers.
I was one of about two hundred students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and parents who participated in a “unity march,” held the morning of November 14 in response to the events on the Baylor campus the evening of the presidential election.
The march was a true grass-roots effort–conceived, planned, and carried out by a diverse group of student leaders. We walked in silence from Waco Hall to Morrison Hall, where we heard from some of the students who had been involved in the conflict. Then the leaders encouraged us to “mix it up a little and make a new friend” as we walked together to Penland to hear from a few more students before we ended up in front of Pat Neff.
In addition to supporting their efforts, I went out of a personal need to be a part of healing the divisions in our country. It’s been almost a week now, and I’m still trying to unpack the experience, to interpret and assimilate it. A blog entry cannot fully do that, but I am offering some of what I experienced.
At Morrison Hall, we heard from the student who found the rope hanging from the tree on his way to class Wednesday morning. This student was one of several there–I saw at least five hands raised when asked–whose family stories included a relative who was dragged out of his home by an angry mob and lynched. When this student saw a rope hanging from a tree, he thought it was a noose, and it frightened him.
After he finished, three Baylor freshmen told us their part of the story. Looking a little like a deer caught in the headlights, the one named Sam told us how he and some friends were star-gazing late Monday night on Fountain Mall. He got bored, wandered around, and found a rope left behind from a Homecoming tent. First he made a loop and tried to lasso a friend. Then he tied it around a Pringles can and made a sort of slingshot. Finally, he recruited his friends to help him make a tree swing, but the venture failed. It was late, and even college freshmen need sleep, so they left the rope hanging from the branch and walked home.
Between the night of the star-gazers/swing-makers and the student discovering the rope they left behind, the world had changed. A black man had been elected president of the United States. Students on the campus–some thrilled, some disappointed by the election results–had exchanged angry words.
As I heard these students each give their accounts of the events, a German folktale came to mind: A farmer’s axe went missing. Though he had no proof, he was convinced the neighbor boy stole it. Each time he saw his neighbor, the boy looked, walked, and talked like a thief. Then the farmer found his axe under some hay in the barn, and the next time he saw the neighbor boy, he just saw a boy.
In some cases, “truth” is not as important as perception.
I wish the rope-in-the-tree part of the story were the whole story. Simple misunderstandings can usually be cleared up when people with differing perceptions are willing to talk to each other. But those angry and hateful words exchanged near Penland Hall on Election Night are part of the story, too.
Subtle racism is just beneath the surface at Baylor, as–I dare say–it is on every campus in this country. Great strides have been made since I was a student in the early 1970s, but Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where we do not judge one another by skin color has not been fully realized. We still have a long way to go. Those kids last Friday knew that, and they were doing what they could to advance the cause.
One reason this unity march had integrity, and touched me so profoundly, was that the assembled crowd didn’t hear “he said … she said … .” These honest young people said, “I saw … I heard … I felt … .” And three very scared and brave freshmen stood in front of a crowd and confessed to a “crime” they didn’t commit. “I’m sorry if someone was hurt by what we did,” they said. “We never meant to hurt anyone.”
The truth is that we live in a divided and broken world. But last Friday morning, I was caught up in a crowd of all shapes and colors, with students who marched and prayed for unity, students who listened with open minds and gave others the benefit of the doubt, students who are willing to continue learning.
It’s a reason to hope.
Photo by Elizabeth Herring