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Confronting prejudice in a Towson Catholic school

Last week, Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit boys’ private school in Towson, closed school early after a second racist threat was found written on a bathroom stall, a week after the first. As a proud Loyola alumnus, this news was painful and reminded me of a problem I once encountered as a student there.

I was the editor of Loyola’s literary magazine as a senior in 2004, and I regularly took the podium at school assemblies to solicit submissions for our publication from the gathering of 800-plus students, faculty and staff in their blazers, khakis and ties. Their faces — most white, some black, even fewer brown, like mine — typically held that vacant gaze prevalent during school-wide meetings.

But this time, rather than deliver my usual pitch, I shared a reflection; the impulse was inspired by the school itself, which encouraged students to approach the world in a questioning, compassionate manner. This was the ethos of a Jesuit education: to be “men for others” committed to the cause of social justice. “Men for others” meant speaking up when others failed to demonstrate the respect exemplified by our spiritual and community leaders. It meant community service to help people enduring homelessness, developmental disabilities and other disadvantages we were privileged to not experience.

With this in mind, I told the crowd I was appalled by both the slanderous scrawlings in our bathroom stalls denigrating homosexuals, and the derogatory remarks I’d heard spoken against people of the Jewish faith. These hateful words violated our community’s essential values of preparing students “committed to diversity and doing justice,” I said, and eroded our school’s character, reflecting ignorance and fear. After the speech, I was met with staggering silence. Then, Mr. Katchko — our history teacher famous for his “defenestration of Prague” lesson delivered from a windowsill — jumped to his feet and led a standing ovation.

Following the assembly, a school official called me to his office. He said my actions were courageous, but that I had “hijacked” the assembly and should be more thoughtful about finding the “right venue” to air grievances.

The word “hijack” stung, carrying a certain horror in the years after 9/11, when the Bush administration mixed fear and nationalism to draw murky lines between good and evil. My grandparents were Armenian Genocide survivors who fled to Lebanon, which meant my family came from “that part of the world” targeted by the War on Terror, and thus were implicated by it. It didn’t matter that my brother served in the U.S. Army or that my family’s Armenian community in Beirut steered clear of politics. In post 9/11 America, nuance mattered little. And in my impressionable adolescent mind, I felt othered by this environment — and now by the school official who wanted me to reconsider how I opposed hate. Ultimately, I was relieved to learn I was not in trouble.

Throughout the rest of the day, classmates and teachers thanked me for my words. They said it took guts and sparked debate inside classrooms about when and how to confront hate. A chorus of appreciation from these supportive peers and mentors drowned out the school official’s harsh words. Through their responses, I saw the best of Loyola and its mission to fight for justice and love.

That day in 2004, Loyola taught me that there is never an ideal time to oppose hate, that complacency is complicity and that silence speaks volumes. Loyola’s leadership taught that lesson to a new generation of students last week by closing the school to address a tragic, racist episode. Now, they should move a step forward, and require mandatory tolerance training for all, for words matter — particularly in today’s climate where the 45th president uses language to undermine truth, stir violence and fan the flames of white supremacy.

These recent episodes of hate should not sully Loyola’s important contributions to empowering students and communities in Baltimore and beyond, where the school engages in admirable levels of service. And I expect that, in harmony with its mission, Loyola will use this reckoning to not just denounce racism, but to reject discrimination in its many forms.

Raffi Joe Wartanian (wartanian.raffi@gmail.com) is a graduate student at Columbia University.

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