By now, you are probably aware of the contretemps that occurred when author Jamie Ford spoke at an assembly for freshman and sophomores at Highland Park High School as part of the school’s annual LitFest. It’s been making the rounds on Facebook, CandysDirt.com, and the Dallas Morning News covered the story almost minutes after Ford posted remarks about his impressions of that assembly.
But just in case you don’t, the Cliff’s Notes version is this: Ford (whose book “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” which depicts life in internment camps during World War II, should be required reading for everyone) spoke to the underclassmen that day, and then was also scheduled to speak at an evening event and to conduct a writing workshop with students the next day.
From what I have ascertained by talking to several students, he began the discussion by taking a selfie of himself from the stage.
Everything after that, however, is a matter of perspective. First, we have Ford’s words, where he talks about how things were apparently going OK at first. Students even clapped and cheered as he shared stories.
But then, apparently, some kept clapping, every time he spoke. “Then as I opened my mouth to speak again—you began clapping. As I tried to answer questions you began clapping,” he continued. “For twenty minutes, as I tried to wrap up my presentation, you clapped and cheered randomly, a thousand students, trolling me.”
After that, Ford spoke of the perceptions of Highland Park, of its wealth and privilege, and his remembrances of the Levi Pettit case from the University of Oklahoma, and its racism. “In coming to Highland Park, I thought that was an anomaly by one of your former students, a racially insensitive apple in a barrel of healthy fruit,” he said. “But now I’m not so sure.”
What ultimately made him think his previous assumption was untrue, he said, was that toward the end of his discussion, he mentioned some information about the Japanese Internment, and then wryly said that he was glad they had not cheered for that.
“Then you clapped and cheered the Japanese Internment,” he wrote.
Ford’s words coursed through the intertubes instantly. Almost immediately, I began getting messages asking me if I had seen it, if I was going to look into it. I reached out to Ford, who responded that he would touch base when he landed, and also sent out a solitary invitation on Twitter for students who were present that day to reach out to me and tell me what they saw.
This, my friends, is why I didn’t write my story Saturday. I wanted to talk to the students. I wanted time to form at least a semblance of a vantage point. I had seen plenty of parents and folks that weren’t in the room talking about it, but little from students. I wanted to hear from them, and try to parse what happened.
Several students reached out to me. What is interesting is that in the beginning, students were corroborating at least large swaths of Ford’s account. But as the weekend continued, I began hearing from students who disagreed vehemently. Dishearteningly, while culling through the comments on Ford’s post, I saw a student call him a racial epithet.
See, I know something went down. The district issued a statement Saturday that seems to corroborate that something untoward and embarrassing happened.
“Unfortunately, the behavior of some of our students during this year’s keynote presentation was not at the standard that we expect. We value the current and past authors who make this event possible, and we will work with our students to improve as a result of this experience.”
In a joint note that went to parents this weekend, Highland Park ISD school board president Joe Taylor and HPISD superintendent Tom Trigg both reiterated that they were saddened by what happened — and also seemed to agree that something happened. “Dr. Trigg has already spoken with Mr. Ford to offer his sincere apology in private, but we also want to apologize publicly, on behalf of the Highland Park ISD community, for the unacceptable behavior he encountered during his keynote address.”
A sampling of student accounts I gathered varied, as I said, as to what they saw or believed happened. Below are some of their accounts. Some requested anonymity, which was granted because hi, have you ever been to high school?
“I do agree with Mr. Ford that our students were disrespectful with clapping inappropriately. Our students did excessively clap when it was not needed. Other than that, the students behaved fine. However, if I was Mr. Ford, I would agree that we set a bad impression for our school. We should have had the maturity to pay attention to Mr. Ford. I feel embarrassed that we gave him a bad visit and impression for our school. The staff did make efforts to quiet students in the aisles…but they did not step up on stage and intervene over a microphone. The only thing Mr. Ford said that I disagree with is that our school was racist. I believe we were just being immature, not racially insensitive.” – A sophomore in attendance
“I was present at the Jamie Ford keynote, and am ashamed a school I have to call my high school. I have been a fan of Jamie’s work since our summer reading of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” – A student in attendance
“I thought what he described was true but slightly exaggerated. That story makes it sound as if this was happening the entire time, when in reality the disrespect was for about 3 minutes. Even so, it was incredibly disrespectful. The really amazing part was that no teacher stepped in at all, including the principal.” – An underclassman in attendance
“While Mr. Ford is absolutely entitled to his own opinion, I think he went about it in the wrong way. I was one of the hundreds of students in attendance to his inspiring and well-spoken speech on Friday. Highland Park owes him an apology for the way he was treated by a select number of younger students but I think the way he goes about telling the story skews everything his way. For the most part, the crowd was attentive, respectful, and engaged. Additionally, for him to attack HP based on his own prejudices and the actions of one incredibly, unbelievably deplorable person is frankly disrespectful. I’m a liberal, Asian American immigrant who moved to Highland Park last year and my own experiences have been only good.” – Anthony Wang, Class of 2019
“I’m not even sure what to say. Jamie Ford came to our school to speak about his book that we all read and very much enjoyed. Most of my classmates sat eagerly in the auditorium and were excited to listen and hoped to be inspired by this author. Sadly, some students did not. The beginning of the assembly was great! Everyone was respectful and listened intently, just as we had all been taught during our many years at HP. He did a wonderful job of relating to our age group and explaining his novel. In the middle of the assembly, people started applauding after every question that was asked, which many of us found unusual. Then it was every answer, then every sentence, then almost every word that he spoke. I was so unbelievably appalled at all of my classmates’ behavior that at that moment, I didn’t want to be associated with them.” – A freshman
“Personally I was not in physical attendance, neither were any upperclassmen, but I have spoken to students involved and heard a plethora of opinions. I do not think any students who were in the auditorium would be a credible source as they were the very ones who apparently let this “clapping” bully a grown man. I started off watching the live stream to see Mr. Ford jump on stage and take a selfie with the crowd possibly trying to ‘connect’ with the audience. That is where I think things went astray, my guess is that said students were insulted by that childish gesture he presented. Mr. Ford, from what I assume, treated the audience like children which is why he received no respect … Myself and the student body obviously do not condone the actions of these few freshmen boys contrary to the opinion that is forced on outsiders. Mr. Ford cleverly worded an argument which is impossible to defend without validating his claims about the Highland Park stereotype.” – A senior
“Because he wrote the freshman summer reading book, the Freshman and Sophomores were the only ones at the assembly. The atmosphere in the auditorium seemed to be very lighthearted as Mr. Ford rehearsed his witty anecdotes about his childhood. The incident truly started when people began to ask questions after the presentation. I remember one girl in the audience said something inaudible from my distance, and a small group of people near her began clapping which the led to a large amount of people throughout the audience clapping, even though most of them had no idea what had happened. Mr. Ford promptly answered questions, and it digressed to the same small group clapping after every pause. Mr. Ford described it as being bullied by 500-700 students. Firstly, I don’t think there was any malicious intent in the clapping. It truly was a group of immature freshman trying to be funny, that led to the clapping. Secondly, there were only around 1000 people in attendance, and by no measure, were even half of the audience members clapping. I would say that it was around 1/4 of people in attendance. Lastly, Mr. Ford presented the argument that people were clapping for Japanese internment camps. This was 100% misconstrued. Mr Ford said a few short words about Japanese internment camps and then passive aggressively thanked the audience for not clapping. After a brief pause, the same thing happened which had happened before. Despite many of the freshman’s immeasurable immaturity, if they had known how they would have been construed, they would not have clapped.” – Jack Wheeler, sophomore
So as you can see, it was tough to see exactly what happened. Nearly all the students agree that at least a pocket of students were rude to Ford. And perhaps it is hurtful to paint an entire student body with a broad brush (even Ford says that students and parents have been reaching out to him to both apologize and reassure him that the incident was not representative of the entire student body). But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.
Now, before you get all excited about me saying it doesn’t matter that Ford says that his impression was that the Park Cities is a bubble of percolating racism, let me explain: Every single person who responded to me, and every single person who responded on Facebook talked about their impressions of the event. What they saw from the audience, from the balcony, from the live stream.
But Ford was telling us how it felt to him, to be on that stage, talking about things that are deeply personal to him (ask any writer how it feels like a thousand tiny razor blades hitting your skin in syncopation to see your words edited and parsed, especially when those words are speaking truth to your experience), and to have a group of kids heckling him. Maybe it was only a quarter of the room. But when you’re standing there, vulnerable, a quarter of a crowd can seem double, or even triple.
Ford felt what he felt, and he’s entitled to that. Maybe he could’ve refrained from the broad strokes, but when you’re aware of people like Levi Pettit and where they grew up, and then students from that very location heckle you, you might draw a broad conclusion, too.
I know many past and present students of Highland Park ISD, and I know their parents. Some of my favorite people are raising children in the Park Cities.
I know that many are thoughtful and insightful students who, as Wheeler told me, “I’m a hardworking student, who lives in a modest, one-story house, and drives a 1998 Toyota 4Runner to school.”
I also know that high school jerks with a sense of entitlement are not — contrary to what some parents living in other pockets of Dallas were saying on Facebook — the sole purvey of Highland Park.
So with that being said, I’d like to urge parents everywhere to consider their children, and make sure they have their empathy chips firmly bound in their hardwiring. It’s easy — especially if you’re living a relatively comfortable life — to feel that you’re raising great kids. And you probably are. But this is a teachable moment regardless of where you are geographically.
A couple of years ago, I was doing research about charitable giving and found an interesting batch of studies written about in The Atlantic. One study revealed that exposure to need often drove an individual’s desire to give.
“In a series of controlled experiments, lower-income people and people who identified themselves as being on a relatively low social rung were consistently more generous with limited goods than upper-class participants were,” a study found.
The same study found that when those giving less were exposed to need — in this case, a video about childhood poverty, they increased their giving.
That, my friends, is an empathetic response. And even the best-intentioned desires for empathetic children will not give you empathetic children if they do not have exposure to need (and to extrapolate, other cultures and viewpoints).
And it can’t be any old exposure to need, either. We need to ask ourselves: How are we presenting this need, or this exposure? Is it, “These people are homeless so we’re going to donate our old clothes?” or is it, “Some people don’t have homes to live in, so we’re going to take some things so they can be warm when they are outside. Don’t you think it takes some resilience to live outside? Do you think you could do it? What kind of tools do you think you’d need to be able to do this?”
Do you see the difference? One exposure automatically establishes a group as “less than.” The other exposure creates common ground, curiosity, and empathy.
Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd runs the Making Caring Common project. In the Washington Post, he revealed that 80 percent of children his project surveyed revealed that their parents cared more about their grades or their happiness than whether they cared about other people.
“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers wrote. They also provided the post with five ways parents can make sure they’re raising kind children. It’s a great read – so do click on the link above.
I think the one takeaway is that at least a few students that day were unkind. I know that many of the parents in the Park Cities want to raise kind children, and are. But before you hit the comments to tell me I’m full of it, let me ask: What would be the best way to prove Jamie Ford wrong about Highland Park ISD?
I believe, my friends, it would be by being kind.