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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

We failed. Let's get out of the way.

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

I'm lucky, I guess, to have a blank page here to draft my thoughts about the district cancelling its production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." I have more than the few inches afforded on facebook, where a few times over the last 24 hours, I've found myself writing lengthy posts, pointed questions and less-than-generous responses to others' posts, only to discard them. I'm glad I did.

If you've been under a rock this week or don't live in Shorewood, you can read about what happened here. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can log on to any number of Facebook sites and hear hundreds of comments about what happened.

After wading through the miasma of those comments today, I am more than a little hesitant to say anything about it at all, because I think white women taking up all the oxygen in the room is part of what's making this incident so toxic. I don't like the idea of being part of that. I have been trying instead to listen when the people who don't usually speak are speaking.

I read and listened to a lot of comments about the play and the play's cancellation. I think it's clear that adults, particularly the ones who are white and have some degree of power in this school district, have so far managed to completely fail our kids where this play is concerned. We didn't fail just a little bit, we failed spectacularly -- not, I might add, for the first time -- at dealing with race in a way that didn't leave some students feeling marginalized and shunted aside. We didn't manage to make any students feel safer or more valued at school. We failed (again) to let art prompt a community-wide conversation about race and language. We failed to even talk among ourselves as adults about race, with this play as a backdrop, in a thoughtful and humble way. Most of all, again, we got in the way of students hearing other students.

There are two problematic parts of the adult conversation I want to call out as especially unhelpful, before this becomes yesterday's news and the latest chapter in Shorewood's history of missed opportunities to live up to our ideals.

1. If a child says "this hurts, please stop," or even "I am afraid, please stop," as far as I am concerned, it is never too late for that child to speak up and reasonably anticipate a response. Nor is it ever too late for the child's mother or father to say, "why is my child's voice not being heard?"

The day and hour at which the chorus of protest rose up was not the problem, the fact that they were not heard sooner or protected earlier is the problem. Let's examine and remedy the ways in which our children were failed before we look at our watches and decide the hour for them to speak about pain has passed.

2. Editing art, or asking for it to be presented in fuller context, or even saying "this art raises great issues, but it doesn't start the conversation we need right now, let's make another choice..." all those options are not censorship. Those are choices communities can reasonably make about the art they fund and present in public places as a community to their children, and they do not inevitably lead us down the slippery slope to burning books.

It seems to me that dangerous censorship happens when people in positions of power ban art or speech because it threatens their power. For that reason I think it would be wrong for the adults in power to be are the ones who decide how much harm art can be allowed to do to how many people, or how much it can be edited before it is meaningless. Let's let our young people talk about that and reach a compromise or agreement.

There is still time to let the students work together to repair the harm done here, and I think we should get the hell out of the way and let them. We've had our chance. If we'd done a better job, there would be fewer kids in tears tonight.

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