How to Respond to the Swastika Drawn In The OES Bathroom

by Jack Morningstar

On Wednesday, Corbet Clark stood in gathering and shared with the student body some disturbing news regarding vandalism in the bathroom.

A swastika was drawn on one of the stall tiles, something that Corbet has not seen in his twenty-nine years at OES. The announcement was very emotional, leaving the surprised student body silent.

To be honest, I was hoping that the administration would wait to speak with student council before making the announcement. In my opinion, the most appropriate course of action was far from what transpired. I feel as though we have been baited and that we have given power to the person who drew the swastika.

Many, including Corbet, have noticed that since the election there has been an increase, “a disease” in Corbet’s words, of heinous activity in the Upper School. There are many people who associate bad behavior in our community with the Trump victory. I would argue, however, that this bad behavior is actually a reaction against what many students perceive to be a heavy-handed and overly politically correct culture at OES.  The swastika seems to me like more of a backlash to authority rather than a genuine political expression.

Just as a disclaimer, I am a straight white male, but I also descend from Ashkenazi Jews. I have been assaulted both verbally and physically because of my heritage and I sure as hell hate the swastika. And I, in no way, wish to condone bigoted behavior. My goal in writing this article is to look at a broader issue at hand that I see as a closely related to swastika in the bathroom.

High schoolers, in general, hate being told what to think. Speaking from personal experience, when I hear someone in authority telling me how somethings is or how something should be, I immediately try to think of ways they are wrong. As a student, I crave the space to think independently. And although OES prides itself in educating hundreds of independent thinkers, I feel judged if what I want to say that falls outside of “accepted” opinion.

I have never in any way supported President Trump. However, when Deb announced after the election that there would be safe spaces for people to share their feeling about the night before, I could not help but begin to sift through Trump’s entire life so I could find something that I could support but never share.

I support our Muslim students and every other group of people who feel threatened or maligned by Trump’s rhetoric. But I am suspicious of a school that steps in to sanction “safe spaces” that assume that we are supposed to be processing information in a certain way.  The job of a school is to give me the tools I need to formulate my own opinions. That job is made obsolete if I am also told what to think. If students want to have a conversation about something controversial, like the election, we should be organizing it ourselves.

I have heard stories about students who feel uncomfortable about speaking up in their classes for fear that they will be misunderstood and demonized by their peers and the faculty. I have experienced this in the Upper School, too. Sometimes I feel like I have to tiptoe around my mind, sorting through every sentence I am about to say in order to make sure that it will not be misunderstood as bigoted.

This kind of culture is toxic, and unfortunately it’s growing. Since the election, people have been it seems as though everyone has been on extra high-alert. The partisan discussions after the election, the cancelling of trivia, increasingly awkward classroom discussions, are all signs of the increased paranoia, and the slow dissipation of the right to speak freely.

In a classroom environment where there are fewer opportunities for students to think about, share ideas, develop opinions, and listen to each other, the bathroom suddenly became a breeding ground for fermented thoughts, and a place to really push the envelope. 

I don’t think that the person who drew the swastika was an antisemite, I think that he wanted to trigger the administration, and watch Corbet pour his heart out in front of the entire student body, just like student council did with previous vandalisms and just like Edge did with Pepe The Frog.

Do not misunderstand what I’m saying. The swastika is a terrible symbol that represents a terrible hatred that resulted in the deaths of millions. And under no circumstances should a symbol like this ever be used as a joke. However, do I think that there is a neo-Nazi among us? No. In my view, this was a blatantly obvious attempt to draw the ire of an overly sensitive institution— and it worked.

I fear that as a result of the bathroom graffiti, we will only continue to become more and more sensitive and less and less able to participate in day to day conversations. I think that the announcement may have catalyzed this reaction. All Upper School students know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, including the person who drew the swastika; it is why he did it.

Looking forward, the answer to this problem is not more safe spaces and heightened political correctness. The answer is letting the student body develop a thicker skin, reforming the student culture so we can create a learning environment that allows people to speak freely and ask the questions that we want to ask so that these feelings of frustration can be channeled through civil discourse instead of inflammatory drawings on the bathroom wall.

I think that one way we can get to this point is by having more student organized events, like town halls, where students can voice their concerns without the faculty breathing down their necks. We could also simply start with assuming the best intentions.

I look forward to working with the student body to brainstorm other ideas on how we can achieve change to increase our schools integrity and make our community truly open.