Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Each day at my high school, I walk and learn in the shadow of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who fought to keep my ancestors enslaved. A 10-foot statue of him greets students as we enter through the front doors.
For me, Lee up on that pedestal is a giant copper reminder that a large portion of the population previously believed, and many still believe, that I am less than. In fact, an entire army was willing to fight the bloodiest war on American soil over that discriminatory idea.
Talk about a distracting learning environment.
While it might be easy for some students, adults, and alumni to put this out of their minds, for me and the other black students I’ve talked to, it is not. If Lee and his army had won, slavery would have persisted even longer. There’s a reason hate groups today use Lee’s name to impart fear and to oppress.
So this past summer, a group of students and I founded the Student Committee For Change. Our goal was simple: to lobby for changing our school’s name from Robert E. Lee to something else – a name that would inspire unity, encourage the student body and promote what we all deserve: a positive learning environment.
When this issue came up on our campus two years ago, I was only a freshman. While I supported it quietly, I admit I was afraid of the backlash that Kayla Wilson, then a Lee student and the creator of the original petition, received. She was saddened by the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a man who posed for photos with Confederate flags. It inspired her to lobby the North East Independent School District board, which voted 5-2 against a Lee name change.
As a senior now, nothing has changed for me. I’m suffering the same mean and hateful backlash as Kayla did. My friends are I are getting harassed and bullied not only by students, but by grown adults who seemingly have nothing better to do than comment on teenagers’ posts on social media.
During the summer, the Student Committee for Change met and began broadening into a diverse coalition of students from Lee and from the two magnets and one other school on campus. We reached out to former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who had publicly advocated two years ago for a Lee name change. He met with a small group of us and advised us to think strategically: How might we sway a majority of the members on the NEISD Board to vote for a change?
We thought extensively about how to respectfully approach the board members and explain our position. We personally emailed each board member with a plan of action to be implemented by the district if they should vote to change the name. We met face-to-face with board member Sandi Wolff, who represents Lee and who voted against the change two years ago, and discussed how we were interested in continuing in the safest way possible. It was a meaningful conversation and I think it was Sandi’s advocacy that really opened up the dialogue for change.
Before the vote at the meeting last week, I had told everyone in the Committee to stay calm if it passed. If we jumped up and cheered, I was afraid it could incite anger from the opposition. There were several angry adults there who had already attempted to yell at us before the meeting. Our biggest concern throughout this entire process was the safety of the students and I’m proud to say that was also the biggest concern of the NEISD school board.
As it turns out, when the vote was passed, being over-excited wasn’t a concern. I was speechless. I couldn’t move. I believed that we’d get the four votes necessary to pass, but I did not expect it to pass unanimously. I also believe the full impact of effecting real political change in a district as big as NEISD, in a city as big as San Antonio, will take a long time to settle in for me.
I’d especially like to thank all the student supporters and those who worked diligently behind the scenes to advocate for change. The campus of Lee High School attracts a diverse group and that is reflected in my group of friends. Seeing that diversity in the halls each day is what gets me through each day and now I am optimistic that the school’s new name will reflect this.
I also would like to make the point that this is not an alumni issue. This issue is about the students of today.
I understand that alums may have immense Lee pride (BIG RED) and to them, this will always be Robert E. Lee High School. That’s fine. But this is not a school I want to go to. I want to go to a school full of fair, supportive students and focused, dedicated faculty. That is what my school is and I believe that it deserves a name that reflects that.
Since the vote, I cannot count the number of people who have asked me what the new name will be. Frankly, my main concern is not what the name is changed to, my concern is what the name is now. Of course, this is going to be a long process that won’t be finished by the time I graduate. Even so, if I can play a part in the next generation of students at this school feeling better about themselves and taking pride in their school, that’s enough for me.