Rockin’ a Hard Place: How teaching on our Rock became a culture war zone

When I was in my senior year of high school several centuries B.I. (Before Internet), I was invited with about a dozen other seniors who had received an “A” in both semesters of U.S. history the year before to stand before the Tacoma Public School Board and receive a certificate of praise for that accomplishment.

In those days, the board was made up of a half dozen fine, upstanding, non-partisan, white male citizens whose mission was to help make sure schools gave students a good, well-rounded education and prepared them for success in life. Politics never infected the board’s work. They didn’t dictate or quibble over specific elements included in classwork. They held very civil meetings, stuck to their agenda and concentrated on school budgets, grade point averages, graduation rates and percentage of seniors going on to college.

The president of the board in my senior year and whose signature is on my diploma was Frederick T. Haley, a wealthy local businessman and son of the founder of Brown and Haley, makers of one of Tacoma’s most famous exports – Almond Roca.

All this ancient history came flooding back to me as I keep hearing about angry, endless school board meetings here on our normally peaceful Rock. Shouting interruptions, screaming the Pledge of Allegiance and other tactics have been used to disrupt the normal business of the boards.

And in this November’s election, board incumbents running for reelection in all three Rock school districts – Langley, Coupeville and Oak Harbor – have well-funded challengers who sometimes will never quite say plainly what their real agenda is: fierce opposition to (1) mask and vaccine mandates, (2) history lessons that include race relations as strong racial tension roils our nation, (3) “inappropriate” sex education at all grade levels and (4) fostering the LGBTQ “agenda,” especially the rights of transgender kids in schools.

To me, what this adds up to is the intrusion of culture wars in what never used to have an obvious partisan or cultural slant. The challengers would limit what children can hear in a classroom; some would even punish or fire teachers who violate those limits by offering a perspective the challengers dislike. I guess the result is supposed to happy, healthy, “protected” kids who haven’t been disturbed by hearing ugly stuff.

But today’s school students live in the internet age. All it takes is a few clicks on a cell phone to get much more explicit sex education than their schools would dream of teaching. Explicit history about American racism is available on a thousand public web sites. Explicit information on COVID and the efficacy of vaccines is a click away. And explicit talk of LGBTQ people and transgender kids floats everywhere on the internet.

If the intent is to limit what students can hear in school, I suggest parents take a look at what their children watch on Instagram and TikTok. That stuff isn’t taught in their schools. Parents may actually learn a thing or two.

At its core, the message I hear from challengers to our Rock school boards is that problems in American society today are caused by too much free-wheeling, do-what-feels-good, “liberal” thinking. This, they say, has corrupted society and is “brainwashing” today’s school kids.

But turning back the clock to enforce some vision of a more pristine time that never really existed is a fool’s errand. Kids have always had ways to learn things their folks didn’t want them to know or weren’t yet ready to tell them.

I had my first sex education lesson more than 60 years ago from a 12-year-old buddy of mine who explained human reproduction in a very graphic way I had no idea was even possible. A Black classmate in my U.S. history class – who also got an “A” and stood before the school board – told me his great grandparents were slaves on a Louisiana sugar cane plantation and were beaten regularly by their white overseer. After the Civil War, they moved north and started a grocery store.

Our history textbooks in my high school did have chapters about slavery and plantations in pretty good, if muted, detail. But I didn’t need today’s controversial critical race theory or 1619 Project to teach me just how evil slavery and white supremacy are. Hearing that first-hand story from my classmate made a much deeper impression on me. It has stuck with me and helped me come to grips with racism in our society today, more than 150 years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

My education came from much more than the classes and teachers I had in school back in Tacoma. I wasn’t “protected” from much of anything, and I’m glad. It made me a better citizen. I am also grateful for the school board’s certificate of praise I received for my “A” in U.S. history.

And I thank Mr. Haley for signing my diploma and doing a great job. I remember him every time I munch some Almond Roca.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives in Central Whidbey.