May 09
Lorraine Berry lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, although it's her transplanted home. On weekends, she can be heard throughout the area, cheering on her beloved Manchester City F.C. When not writing at Does This Make Sense? or Talking Writing, she can be found hiking with her two dogs, hanging out with her two daughters, eating what her beloved Rob has cooked for her, or teaching creative writing at a small college in the area.


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NOVEMBER 28, 2011 5:03AM

My Daughter Had Her Own Governor Brownback (update)

Rate: 25 Flag

By now, you've heard the story of the high school student who is being harassed by Governor Brownback to apologize to him for disparaging him in a tweet. 

Other than the obvious problem of a grown man, a politican, being upset with a high school student because she said something mean about him, the questions of the power of adults over teenagers is not one to be brushed aside lightly. 

I know.

A few years ago, my daughter encountered her own Governor Brownback in the guise of a middle school principal. While Twitter did not exist at the time, I have no doubt he would have carried the campaign further if he could have found a way to get away with it. 

Here is that story: 

How much courage does it take to take on an authority figure? How much courage does it take if you are 12 years old?
As I think about Emma Sullivan today, I also think about S., who is now 20.

When S. was 12, she and a group of her schoolmates made a decision that they were not going to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, as is mandatory at their school every morning. The reasons for their decision will become clear as the story goes on. 


Their actions did not go unnoticed by the principal, who used the overhead loudspeaker to denounce the kids before the whole school, telling them that they were privileged to live in the greatest country on earth, that his best friend had died in Viet Nam defending their freedoms, and that he was offended by the kids' behaviour. He made an example of them, using his authority to attempt to shame the students into backing down on their decision. 

I knew nothing about this. S. knows my political views, but I don't preach. So, imagine my surprise when I'm driving home with S. from school and the following conversation takes place.

"Mom. I have to tell you something."
Me, arching eyebrow.
"Yeah. I wrote a letter to the principal today."
"I think I might get in trouble, so I thought you might want to know."

At which point she reads me the following. I'm sharing it with you because I took that letter out today, this day when a Kansas governor has gone mad, and I found myself wondering, what would happen if we raised an entire generation of kids that were willing to question authority and ask important questions? Could we avoid the next war? The next financial collapse? It's my hope.

So here, without further ado, and with all the 12-year old grammar and spelling intact (and, I must admit, a bit of flinch-worthy language), I give you the letter.

Dear Mr.
I have different beliefs about our country than you do but that's not the reason I am writing you this letter. I would like to point out a few things to you.

You said that our country had so much liberty, that kids can get breakfast at our school for free. But why can't they have it in the first place? The very government you're pledging allegiance to! Over 20% of our country is in a state of poverty becuase their jobs don't supply healthcare or there is not enough money because of the tax cuts for the rich to even SUPPORT a medicare system.

I am very sorry that your friend died in Vietnam, but this was unprofessional of you to bring that up. I am also going to point out that the people who issued that draft, was the government. The great, tremendous and free government.

I am a Unitarian Universalist. I do not believe in god so I found it DEEPLY offensive when you said this nation blessed by god. Okay how do you even know that there is a god? Does she/he speak to you? I believe that god would want to bless other countries besides the US that have taken better care of the beautiful creature that she/he created (planet Earth).

I know that you have the freedom of speech and to say the Pledge if you want to, as I have to right to write this letter to you. Guaranteed to us by the 1st amendment.

People in our school stood up for what they believed in. They used their BRAINS. They thought and discovered political opinions. You as a principal should be supporting our learning. Instead, you CRUSHED it by pulling at our American heartstrings with your speech.

Overall, I found your speech a cry for pity, one-sided, and against our religious freedoms.


The principal's response to this letter? He went to my daughter's basketball coach and tried to get her kicked off the team. When that failed, he stopped. But he never spoke to my daughter about her concerns, just regarded her as a troublemaker for the last couple years she spent at her middle school. 

 So, I say to Emma: "rock on." 

And to S., I say. "You make me proud each and every day. I love you." 



(S. in 2010 in India, where she was part of a learning/service community. Among her experiences was working in Mother Teresa's hospice, and teaching girls in northern India.) 


Update: The governor has apologized, although he blames it on his staff. 

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High school is hell, all around. We're in the thick of it now and not only the kids' behavior toward each other is shockingly cruel, the puppet master parents are contributing to the actions of their spawn according to their warped ideas of morality and justice. And the third leg on the stool, the administration, is intoxicated with control and power...

I cannot wait until my daughter is free of this scene and in college where her thoughts and views are respected.
I remember feeling torn over this incident. I've taught my kids to be independent, and I do feel that as a 12-year old, she may have been rude. But I figured he was the adult, and he should have dealt with it in an adult way.
The fact that he chose to try to humiliate the kids in front of the whole school, instead of meeting with them to find out what they were thinking and why they had reached their decisions, seemed to be me to be a major failure of a teaching moment.
Yes. You're right. It's much easier in college to "be yourself."
You've raised your daughter well. She very well could be the type around which a movement can coalesce. We all know that balance is harmonious and we've had a one sided debated about our values for far too long.

Still, I am forever astonished at how local issues and narrow interests can come together to form a broader dialogue and reach critical mass. It's a brew and despite our instant communication technology, it evolves on it's own timetable, burns itself down to an irreducible core that cannot be divided and conquered. The process is so painstaking that many times it surprises us when we finally acknowledge it. Decades can go by and generations are lost before it manifests.

My best hope is that the next generation can find the right balance.
I see by Huff Post that the student who so deeply wounded Brownback (what the hell is he doing in politics?) is refusing to apologize. Good for her!

And good for your daughter - amazing document from a 12-year-old. Who has obviously gone on to do more good things.
I love a girl with a spine. Good for S. Good on her. ~r
My sister gave New Mexico's governor, Bruce King, whatfor in the 1970s. I can't remember what it is all about but I love when the youth stand up to authority. Too bad authority usually wins. I hope this little girl is triumphant. Talk about invasion of privacy!
Bless you and your daughter and damn the idiot. Damn to hell.
And Linnn's right, tho having done what I am able at jr and at hi sch levels as teacher and head of division, I can say w.o much question that hs is usually easier for kids bc thre individuality is prized by more than just a bullied and/or disaffected handfull (as in jr ji).
What a wonderful letter. It is really something to think that she was only twelve and what a great photo of her in India. You raised her well, Mom.
I'm really moved by your comments, y'all. SHe is a brave, brave woman who I think is going to make a difference in the world. And I'm proud as hell to be her mom.
Well done and said, S.

You have a right to be proud, Lorraine.
WOW. Very impressive for 12 -- and I love the picture from India. It's wonderful to see a young person so firmly planted in her convictions, and caring about real-world issues.
I thought (from reading the news) that the harasser was not the Governor's office, but the principal, demanding an apology. And that it was the governor's staff, not he, who made a fuss out of it, but not saying he isn't a douche (he might just be) about the whole thing. It reminds us what pettiness gets and keeps people in authority positions. Those who cowtow to decorum versus principle, as they rarely understand that it should be the other way around. It is not just the American way, or the male way, sadly.
Proud of your daughter for writing such a fine letter. It becomes clearer as time goes on how often the position of coach or principle is held by a bully, and perhaps we know why bullies aren't dealt with so well in school- they are just in job training.
Oryoki. Yes. It is the principal harassing her on the gov's behalf. Whatever's going on, Brownback has not stepped forward to stop it. You're fight though. I know many fine people in school administration work, but I also know some bad apples.
Your daughter! What a woman, even at 12. Too bad she didn't send her letter to the local newspaper. That principal should've had his butt kicked by each of the kids he tried to embarrass, one after the other. Brava to S and brava to you, Lorraine, for raising such a gutsy, righteous young lady.
Thank you for raising your daughter that way, and I thank her for standing up for what's right. Perhaps young people like your daughter and the girl in Kansas will set a better example for the adults around them to stand up to bullies. Sad because it should be the other way around.

You are a strong, level headed person with a lot of empathy. You're a good example for me. Thank you.
If this was a public school, someone ought to have pointed out that the Supreme Court ruled that students can refuse to salute the flag (I believe it was originally Jehovah's Witnesses who were expelled for refusing to do so) back in like 1948.
Proud to know a mother who brings up such a wonderful child. We stand on the same ground. You have done well, you taught your daughter to think, something that will set her apart in the years to come from many, and may someday make her a leader, the good kind, the kind we will embrace.

I have seen my children at the threshold many times, I have seen them find something within to fight wrongs with. I, like you, am appreciative, sometimes amazed and mostly proud of what they do and where it takes them. It comes, I think from raising them with the a strong dose of reality, individualism, support and allowing individualism. The years in this town have never been easy, from my politics and activism to my abhorrence of mystical, negative group think. All I can say is, you have done well.
Wow, your daughter's letter was NOT rude! I am impressed!
Your daughter's letter is very well-written, especially for a twelve-year-old. Good for her. And yes, there are a lot of idiots who make it into school administration.
I want to add my kudos, both to your strong daughter and her wonderfully supportive mother.
well done, by you and sprout.
Yes. It was a public school, which is why I found the principal's behaviour especially egregious. As my daughter said, why was he bringing God into a discussion with them in the first place?

It's funny. As soon as I heard about the Kansas case, I immediately thought of my daughter. My bet is that there are cases of this every day, where a teenager voices an opinion not in line with the official story and is asked to apologize.
Good job, Mom.
Good job. "S"
Proud of you both!
It was a child who said that the king has no clothes. Well done, S. Well done, Mom.
Kudos to her.
My daughter refused to stand for the Pledge and when the teacher confronted her she boldly stated that she was not a citizen and felt that it was not her duty to do so. She was about 8 at the time! (We are now citizens but she had already finished high school by the time we got all the paperwork squared away)
You've done something right, mom!
The principal was/is a small person, a very small person. What's even sadder, is that he and his ilk don't know how small and sad they are. Kudos to your smart daughter for standing up for herself and for her beliefs. ... I love her descriptor, "Unitarian Universalist!"
I just updated my FaceBook with the story of how Brownback was so cowardly that he blamed the whole thing on his staff. Kudos to your daughter!
Here in the US we have the ILLUSION of freedom. Just don't try to exercise it or you'll find out how much freedom you really have. You have about as many rights as the people in Tahrir Square. You have the right to get gassed and shot, beaten with nightsticks, pulled by your hair, tased, mocked by the servile and owned media, kettled, unlawfully restrained without charge, handcuffed, caged outdoors for days in all weather, and told to be grateful when you're released without charge, - and that's just for exercising your constitutional right to freely assemble and petition the government per the constitution! Here in the U.S. the police act with impunity and their violence is primitive, unjustified, and excessive, when dealing with mass protest. The elite who serve the 1% had better realize that while they may have sidelined the constitution, the people, by virtue of being human beings, have other rights not given by, enumerated, or circumscribed by governments, first among them being the right of self-defense. The Libyans most recently demonstrated that!

So a high school principal telling students this is the freest country in the world while simultaneously taking steps to restrict their freedom is merely demonstrating the beginning point of the continuum of the iron fist in the velvet glove!
Of all the illogical excuses the principal could have come up with to treat your daughter and her friends the way he did, the fighting and dying for freedom in Viet Nam takes the cake. Wouldn't it have been far, far more constructive for the head of the school to sit down with these kids and discuss with them their thoughts and his on the matter. Perhaps he could have asked them, on his behalf, to stand for the pledge, but that he completely understood and respected their misgivings if they decided not to, and then even thank them for speaking out. That, I would guess, would have had a far more positive impact on these kids. Alas it's all history now. As the father of two strong willed daughters, you and yours have my complete support.