Will GHS Confront Systemic Racism?

By Jordan Paris, GHS class of 2020

On June 9th, a hopeful sight greeted the students at Greenwich High School: a COVID-19-safe graduation. Seniors were required to stand six feet apart and permitted about a minute on the stage and in the photo booth to have a picture taken holding their diploma. 

As one of these students, I was gleeful about being done with high school and ready to start my new journey at college in the fall.

Graduating with my friend and their family, they decided to surprise us with a car designed with a rainbow theme to commemorate the start of Pride Month.

The decorations said “Co-Presidents of the Gender Sexuality Alliance,” and the colorful vehicle caught the eye of the media.

Between my friend and I, we had participated in nearly every opportunity that came our way in regard to diversity both in and out of the classroom: the previous week, we had attended a protest in Stamford to advocate for change with police brutality.

We both had spoken at the previous two years’ Diversity Weeks, working with the school to make sure everyone felt accepted and welcome. As my friend touted a rainbow flag and had a Black Lives Matter-themed mortar board, we chatted in line waiting for the official moment where we would be rewarded for our efforts for the past four years.

In the distance, somewhere, a photographer with a telephoto lens managed to capture this private moment of us happily discussing future plans.

While we were talking, the photographer snapped a photo of me in which I happened to have my hand in an “okay” sign as I gestured in conversation.

I did not know I was having my photograph taken and couldn’t have made a deliberate choice to display a white supremacist hand signal — which I would never do anyway, as a transgender student who knows how hurtful white supremacy is.

Both of us left with our caps, gowns, and pride. Pride in knowing we went through high school fighting for equality for those of all backgrounds. In no way did either of us expect what would happen the next day.

After the photo was published as part of Greenwich Time’s graduation coverage, a movement started within the high school to get the picture taken down due to a claim that my inadvertent okay sign was a white supremacist gesture.

The high school administration began contacting my respective House, saying that they did not want this image to represent the high school.

The newspaper managing editor initially replied that, “if we take that photo down, we are accusing that student of making a white supremacist gesture. Members of my staff are familiar with that student, and feel strongly that is not how the gesture was intended. So I am inclined to leave it up out of fairness to the young person involved.”

The paper eventually deleted the photo from its online edition.

I arrived at GHS as a sophomore, and during my three years in the school I both witnessed and heard other students’ stories like mine in which the administration overreacts to impose political correctness, while under their noses there are incidents of racism and discrimination against students who don’t conform, including LGBTQ students.

This is sad because the high school has such an opportunity to celebrate its diversity. It should be celebrated all year. There should be classes in gender studies, and Black and Latino issues. And most of all there should be a real conversation, not a PC knee jerk reaction that catches me up in a storm of controversy when I’m supposed to be celebrating graduation.

When the administration and staff focus on being politically correct by targeting incidents like my innocent okay gesture they lose sight of what really needs to change. And there is a lot that needs to change.

Greenwich High School student center

Let’s start in the cafeteria.

The student center itself is enormous: yet, despite all the possibilities of where students can sit, it is subtly restricted. In fact, past GHS graduates attest to striking similarities to where people sit today from where they sat 50 years ago.

On the first day of school, I had a teacher sit me down and detail where all the groups sat. The teacher, being at Greenwich High School for quite a while, said she had seen the students come and go but the groups sit in the same spots year to year. She drew a diagram of where the Hispanic kids sat, the place where the Asian kids sat, where the African American kids sat, where the athletes sat, where the cheerleaders sat, where the outcasts sat, and then where everyone else sat. She drew it all out on paper, and at the end, sadly smiled at me as if to say, “Welcome to Greenwich. The city that never changes.”

There is a separate lunch line for the free and reduced lunch kids. It is outside of the cafeteria where any passing students can see who is in line. The majority of these students are people of color. In addition to that humiliation, the plated meals are lower quality than the rest of the food available to purchase in the cafeteria.

Free and reduced Breakfast? Forget about it. You have to get in the line before 8:25am, but many are late because a lot of the free and reduced students rely on the bus to get to school.   

For the kids who can afford it, there are choices such as Acai Bowls bowls from SoBol or the quick and easy muffin (which is usually much more acceptable for students to eat in class)

The options given are not transportable for the students who come in late so many of these students are forced to wait to eat until lunch.

Again, welcome to Greenwich. A town rich enough to invest in a constantly flooding $44M auditorium, but not enough to provide higher quality options to kids, or at least the ability for them to invest in space so they can wait in line where everyone else does.

All of this further pushes the achievement gap, which is very much present at Greenwich High School. Especially in the honors and AP classes where there are only a handful of people of color, and extracurricular activities like theater.

A good place to start when looking for change would be in the makeup of the staff and administration because 89.5% of the teachers in the Greenwich school district are white. This creates a lack of opportunity for students to see adults of color teaching in the lens of their experiences.

I had a gay pride flag ripped out of my hand and thrown on the floor of the glass corridor. I have witnessed a student deface Diversity Week posters with slurs written in Sharpie.

Having few staff of color, especially among administration, security, and other leadership positions involving safety, creates a disconnect between properly carried out punishment.

And it is also sad that the 2020 Compass yearbook’s only representation of Diversity Week is a page of photos of the Alvin Ailey dancers, so small and blurry it’s impossible to see the dancers are African-American.

Diversity Week is a commendable annual event at Greenwich High School featuring many speakers, panel discussions and performances. They range from representing those of all colors, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, and more.

Mr. Charles and the Diversity Awareness Club work tirelessly to create a variety of engaging presentations for all.

This is, without a doubt, one of the best things any school can do to promote diversity and awareness: the auditorium and media center host impressive performances that can seat all students and teachers.

When questioned about the minimal representation of Diversity Week in the yearbook page and whether she felt it properly represented the diversity of the student body, yearbook advisor Kenna Metter replied in an email, “Topic coverage such as diversity is by student interest and participation. The biggest factor in adequately comparing yearbook coverage year to year is not to look at the content but rather student involvement.”

Kicking the blame back to students doesn’t seem fair, especially considering the unfortunate past of the Compass Yearbook.

 In 1995, five boys worked together to create a code through their senior quotes saying, “Kill all N******“. Prior to that, until the mid 1970s, a fundraising tradition at the high school was Slave Day where students wore tags on their back saying ‘slave’ or ‘master,’ and were auctioned off.

With this unfortunate past, why isn’t the yearbook team working harder to address these issues? Why is focusing several pages on globally known pop stars more important than focusing on the crucial work Mr. Charles does to celebrate the diversity in Greenwich High School?

Greenwich High School is more focused on taking down my accidental okay gesture rather than working toward a frank discussion of systemic racism.

The fact that this incident is my final memory of my time at Greenwich High School is really disappointing.

On the radio this week Board of Education chair Peter Bernstein said, “We’ve been getting a lot of emails for a call to action on racism. It’s really a community conversation and we’re looking internally at what we do, what we teach, how we hire, things of that sort.”

That’s good to hear because there is a long, winding road ahead for fixing the racism deeply rooted in the students and staff at Greenwich High School. And as I reminisce on the experiences I’ve seen and heard: the Swastikas drawn around the band room and witnessing several students deface diversity week posters and banners with homophobic and racist symbols, I can’t help but ask myself, Is Greenwich ready?