We Can Do Better

In the part of Maryland I grew up in from middle school through high school, many of the neighborhoods, mine included, were new developments on old farmland. The farms had been bought by development groups, subdivided, and built on with new, large homes that stood out in contrast the older, smaller farmhouses that predated them. This meant that much of the population had recently migrated to the area from elsewhere.

New homes and good schools created fertile soil for an influx of upper-middle class families from diverse racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. The area was once full of blue-collar families who were almost exclusively white with a few poor black families mixed in. However, it was fast becoming a proverbial mixing bowl, with people of all different social classes moving in, people who were different and who made those who had been there for multiple generations uncomfortable.

My friends and I were a mixed group. We were white, black, Asian, and Jewish, but none of that defined us within our ranks because we were just friends. At school, however, amongst the general population, things were different. We were not like the others, like the people whose families had lived in that region for many years before we came along. As a result, there was a lot of conflict between our group and ‘the rednecks’ as we referred to them. Even some of the old-school teachers were confrontational toward us or dismissive of us. It did not help that we were also troublemakers, but this could easily be considered a chicken-and-egg problem.

Do not ask me how, but one day we found ourselves on the roof of our high school. While we were walking around up there, we came across a flag. We picked it up and found it to be a Confederate flag with a picture of Hank Williams Jr. in the middle of it and the words “if only the South would have won” written across the top and bottom. The meaning behind the words on this flag and of the flag itself were no secret to us. We knew full well what it was implying.

In our present social-political climate, I am reminded of this flag and of what it meant to my friends and me, how it was both hurtful and infuriating. Then I think about my friends themselves and I know that there are people around me who can and do make this an amazing place to live. Whoever made that flag, however, whoever bought it, and whoever put it on the roof of our school thought that my friends, and myself along with them, were somehow less than human, that we do not belong here, and that somehow this place would be better off without us. There is nothing great about that vision for America, but I also know that those people did not win and we still have hope.

Written by Robert Van Valkenburgh

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