By Michael Tessler
Throughout our brief but impactful history, America’s protesters have accomplished quite a bit. From the Sons of Liberty dumping nearly $1.7 million worth of English tea into Boston Harbor (talk about destruction of property) to Dr. King sharing his dream during the March on Washington. Protests, petitions, walkouts and other acts of civil disobedience certainly have earned their chapter in the American story, not always for good reasons, unfortunately.
My first protest was back in 1999 at Scraggy Hill Elementary in Port Jefferson. Things, as you may remember, were a bit simpler back then. Before the advent of social media, before digital petitions and fake news blogs we were forced to have conversations with one another.
Esther Fusco, my former principal, had an office tucked away behind the school’s reception area. Inside she had an old-fashioned metal candy dispenser that only accepted pennies. Whenever you were called into her office, she made sure you got to crank out a handful of M&Ms. Between that and her famed “Star Assemblies,” there was a lot to love as a student.
Unfortunately, for reasons beyond the comprehension of a six-year-old, Dr. Fusco had her assignment changed by the school board and was no longer working in the school. When I heard she was gone, I went home and asked quite innocently, “Where’s Dr. Fusco?” That unknowingly became the rallying call for the first protest I ever participated in.
My mom, an impassioned activist for early childhood education, organized with other community members to picket, protest and attend meetings. This was an extraordinary lesson in civics for a little boy and one that I treasure to this day. You can imagine my excitement when almost 20 years later I hear about petitions circulating through Ward Melville High School. Young people were speaking up about an issue they were passionate about.
To provide a bit of context, Ward Melville’s principal introduced a new uniformed graduation gown that combines the school’s signature green and gold. In the past, they had been separated by gender. However, with the school’s growing transgender and gender-fluid population, they wanted to adjust with the times. Naturally, there was pushback as it was altering a 50-year tradition.
What should have followed was a debate on the BEST method to preserve tradition while accommodating changing times and the needs of the student body. What actually transpired was unfortunately quite the opposite. Petitions began to grow and with them hateful comments about transgender and gay/lesbian individuals.
During a student walkout, several students held up signs saying “STRAIGHT LIVES MATTER” and imagery often associated with the former Confederate States. There’s a fundamental difference between fighting for tradition and using the guise of tradition as a means of marginalizing another group.
Here’s the unfortunate reality: 41 percent of transgender youth and 20 percent of gay/lesbian/bisexual youth will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Just for perspective, 4.6 percent of the general population will attempt suicide. Words matter, and if you’re wondering how those numbers got to be so staggering, look no further than the comments on some of these petitions.
If someone is willing to keep something like that a secret for their whole life, if the pain of that secret is enough cause for them to take their own life, then who the heck am I to question who they are and why? We were not born wearing blue or pink. We were born human beings and being human isn’t always easy so let’s stop making it harder on each other.
Nonviolence and peaceful demonstrations remain the second greatest force of change in this country next to democracy itself. To my young friends at Ward Melville, on all sides, keep fighting for what you believe in. Do so however, while showing respect and civility. You are stewards not just of your own rights, but those of all Americans. Just remember, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
Seriously though, where is Dr. Fusco? If anyone sees her, please tell her Michael Tessler sends his regards. I’m 18 years overdue for some M&Ms!