100 People Want to Change the Name of My High School. 7,000 People Don't.

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Robert E. Lee High School

Well, bless our hearts. Somebody wants to erase our history and change the name of my hometown high school.

I first heard the news yesterday when dozens of friends started sharing a Change.org petition on Facebook, encouraging people to sign. The poorly-written opening statement said it all:

"Robert E. Lee High School classmates if you have not heard according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph a group of Tyler residents believes now is the time for Tyler Independent School District to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School."

Okay, it's getting REAL in T-town.

Those of us who graduated from Robert E. Lee High School know that a name change is never going to happen. At current count, there are 7,642 signatures against the name change, 118 for it. The mere notion of that happening is about as foolhardy as the time someone tried to build a breastaurant called Double-D's across from none other than Robert E. Lee High School. When it comes to big change in Tyler, it just ain’t gonna happen.

Except maybe one day it will.

I’ve already survived this more than once. After I graduated from Southwest Texas State University, they changed the name of the school not once, but twice. As it turns out, they’ve erased history seven times! My Southwest Texas State University degree is resting peacefully in a Rubbermaid tote because I'm too traumatized (read: lazy) to suffer through the atrocity of calling to request an updated diploma.

In 2016, it happened all over again. All three of my kids attended Austin's Robert E. Lee Elementary School, and then people starting discussing changing its name. When the list came out of the suggested names, among them were Donald J. Trump Elementary, Bleeding Heart Liberal Elementary, and my personal favorite, Boaty McBoatface Elementary School. There were heated debates online and at meetings, and in the end, Lee Elementary is still Lee Elementary, but now, it's named after the first University of Texas photography professor Russell Lee. Problem solved?

Not quite.

I'm not here to change anyone's mind, because we all know what opinions are like, and we all have plenty of them. I’m just surprised to see so much vigor and passion around a Change.org petition by people who have otherwise kept pretty quiet about political matters. I’ve signed countless petitions online, but this one really has some legs. I’m curious why this is the topic that’s given so many people the courage to “get political” on Facebook. With everything happening in the world right now, it takes this to get the discussion started?

If we feel a sense of outrage, have we reached out to our friends of color to ask them how they feel about this? If this topic gets us red in the face, have we considered putting the same passionate energy into reaching out to marginalized communities in our neighborhoods? Have we stopped, for just a moment, to consider that the children of color who graduate from a school that's name - maybe not for us but for them at least - could be a daily reminder our country's dark history where white people owned black people as property?

Last night, I was kept awake reading a real-time conversation on Facebook by a man who was hot under the collar about the name change and a few people who dared to challenge him. In the conversation between what I assume by context were relative strangers, the man threatened violence several times, used misogynistic language, and overall, proved himself to be an honest-to-goodness goat turd. But lucky for that guy, he has a constitutional right to defend someone trying to erase “his” history! I had to resist reporting him to the authorities for threatening violence. I resisted because I know I don’t choose my words carefully that late at night.

My choice to resist jumping in is a big part of our problem. This is not a one side against the other conversation. I'm convinced that many of the people who are fired up about the mere suggestion of changing the name of their high school absolutely loved The Blind Side. I know that plenty of people who simply hooted with laughter at that poop pie scene in The Help still have a constitutional right to fight for their grandchildren to graduate from Robert E. Lee High School. But are we paying attention to the bigger picture? We all know that tearing down statues and changing names really isn't the issue - it's dealing with how we confront systematic racism on a daily basis, and dealing with having open discussions about race relations in a country that seems to be going to hell in a hand basket pretty darned fast.

For the past 24 hours, I’ve been singing the Robert E. Lee school song in a constant loop in my head. “Robert E Lee, we raise our voices in praise of your name. May honor and glory e’er guide you to fame. Long may your colors and their symbols recall faithfully that red is for courage and white for purity.” We used to laugh about the “purity” part. I don’t recall giving a second thought to what the symbols actually represented.

When I sing it, I remember leaning side to side in the bleachers, pinky fingers hooked with my friends, the innocence of youth never forcing me to question what my school's namesake really meant. I knew that REL was the "white" school and the school on the North side of town, John Tyler, was the "black" school. I saw the kids in trucks waving confederate flags during football season and while I knew the symbol was one that could be - for lack of a better word – “triggering” to my black classmates, I never stood up and said a single word.

I was the blind side.

This morning, I've watched both petition counts increase, those against the name change clobbering those for it. So I’m going to stand up and be number 119. It won't change a gosh-darned thing, and it may lose me a few old friends, but I somehow doubt that. The true friend will be willing to have the conversation, and if I'm a true friend, I need to be willing to truly listen even if I disagree.

If I can't stop singing "red is for courage, and white for purity," then I better pay attention to the words, and have the courage to stand up for change.

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