Olivia Capestany, now a senior at Seattle’s Roosevelt High, writes about the need for more political tolerance at her high school.
(Editor’s note: This is the sixth essay we’ve published this year as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high-school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about school? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A week after the election, when a man wearing a Make America Great Again hat walked into our journalism class, we all thought it was a joke. It’s rare to see anyone who is openly Republican at Roosevelt High School in Northeast Seattle.
With Hillary Clinton winning more than three times the votes as Donald Trump in King County, it’s no surprise that the election results devastated many Roosevelt students. Students showed up to school in black clothing, saying they were mourning the loss of intelligence in this country. Some were in tears, hugging and holding each other in the hallways. My school had a total of three walkouts with a large portion of the school participating, myself included.
So when our journalism teacher invited Forest Machala — a 22-year-old Trump supporter and former Roosevelt student — to visit our class, we were surprised, to say the least.
“Everyone was in that funk, and in this shock [from the election] … I thought that it would be a good opportunity for them to talk … with someone who honestly and openly walked into Roosevelt with a red hat on,” said Christine Roux, my journalism teacher.
Machala was equally excited for the opportunity. One of the reasons he was at Roosevelt that day was to see how we were handling the election.
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Before the discussion began, Ms. Roux told us that we could leave if we weren’t comfortable, and about half the class left to work on other assignments. I was devastated from the election because I supported Clinton, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle talking with a Trump supporter. But my curiosity outweighed my fears and I decided to stay — until I heard Machala say that his faith in Trump didn’t falter after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, which shows Trump making misogynist comments about women.
I was so upset, I had to run out of the room to calm myself down. After a few minutes of deep breaths, I realized that he felt as strongly about his beliefs as I do about mine and I should respect him.
Growing up in a Cuban American family, I have always heard about the value of free speech. Throughout my childhood, I was influenced by Fidel Castro piñatas at birthday parties and stories of the American dream. I was taught that free speech is a privilege, because in Cuba, that privilege was limited. I think that’s why I struggle with intolerance, especially if it’s me being the intolerant one. We are so lucky that we have the right to free speech. No matter how hard it is, we should always honor each other’s voices.
I returned and continued to participate in the conversation.
The next day in class, we spent some time talking about Machala’s visit. There were many different feelings expressed, but the common thread was shock. Nobody had ever talked to anyone like him before. That surprised me. I never realized how little political diversity there was in my school, and it opened my eyes to the fact that there were probably other students who, like Machala, were loyal to Trump but too afraid to speak up.
In the months that followed, I started to notice a one-sidedness in class discussions and my peers using the word Republican as an insult. I think this behavior is harmful. As teenagers, our political opinions are constantly changing. Every high school should foster a safe environment for students to learn and grow politically. And that should start on the most fundamental level — with encouraging respectful conversations.
Xing Gilbert, a senior who organized two of the walkouts, said it’s important for students to voice their views. “It shows people in other parts of the country, and the city, that there are students who are upset, students like them who don’t agree with the current leadership,” he said.
Yet while I’ll always be a supporter of student voice, I think we have to be careful that we aren’t suppressing another person’s right to speak.
I’ve seen my liberal peers shutting themselves off to other viewpoints. This is not OK. It’s important for people to engage in these conversations. It’s only way we can move out of our political gridlock. Unfortunately, for many students in Seattle, it’s hard to even get an opportunity to talk with someone with opposing views.
At Roosevelt, tensions between Republicans and Democrats reached a boiling point. Friendships were broken and all fifty of the posters advertising the school’s Republican club were ripped down. Many Republicans at Roosevelt ended up feeling even more isolated and afraid to speak out.
To be clear, liberal students can also be the targets of political bullying in school settings. Directly after the election, there were Republican students shouting “Build a wall” in Detroit cafeterias and students taunting their classmates yelling “Trump” in Kentucky. There are very legitimate reasons for students to be concerned about the outcome of this election. But at my school, it didn’t matter if your views skewed only slightly to the right — people would assume you were a Trump supporter.
“It’s a very divided country right now, and schools are going to reflect that tension,” said Ian Malcolm, the AP Comparative Government teacher at Roosevelt.
One student who felt that tension was junior Maddy Hoffman. Leading up to the election, Hoffman was interviewed in the student newspaper about her support for Trump. In the article, Hoffman talked about her belief in stricter immigration because she thinks it will put American jobs first.
She expected some people to react negatively to her views but she said it was frustrating to see how unwelcoming some students were for a few days after the article came out.
“In the hallways at school, [someone] I didn’t even know would pass me yelling ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Build a wall.’ It was like harassment,” Hoffman said.
The two students who started Roosevelt’s Republican Club had a similar experience.
One of them said his co-president was assaulted in the school gym after some students heard them talking about Republican politics. Roosevelt administrators confirmed that a physical altercation did take place during an assembly. The situation resulted in school-based discipline.
Some teachers weren’t helping matters. Six students told me that their teachers belittled Trump supporters and handed out fliers for the walkout after the election. I think that all teachers, not only at Roosevelt, need to make sure they don’t assume that their audience is liberal, to entertain other perspectives, and to create a classroom environment that strikes a balance between respect and free speech.
“If teachers … create a culture of intolerance in that classroom then they are failing in their job basically. They need to make sure that everyone has a voice in the classroom,” said Malcolm.
Luckily, some students at my school are determined to making sure diverse voices can be heard. Hoffman, for example, has made it her mission to promote political tolerance. Through her club, the Debate Society, she encourages respectful conversations. Clubs like the Political Discussion Club and the Republican Club have the same ethos. Antonio Zacco, a rising senior and one of the leaders of the Political Discussion Club, said it’s important for students, who will soon be our nation’s leaders, to regularly talk with people with differing views.
Following the election, the Political Discussion Club and the Republican Club participated in an open debate similar to the one we had in journalism class. In the meeting, they discussed immigration policy tied to current events. Both leaders say that the discussion went well and there are more planned in the future. Going into my senior year, I hope to encourage respectful and robust debates in my classes and maybe participate in several of the new clubs. Although the clubs are just starting to change the climate at Roosevelt, these students may have found a solution — simply listening to each other.