I Will Never Understand

I always thought that advanced age would bring wisdom—or if not wisdom, at least a greater understanding of the world and the human beings who populate it. I was wrong. There are things I will never, ever understand.

A month or so ago, a federal judge in Mississippi ruled that the rights of high school senior Constance McMillen were violated when her high school refused to allow her to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend to the Itawamba Agricultural High School prom. The school promptly cancelled the prom rather than allow Constance to attend. Federal Judge held a trial on the matter later and reaffirmed his ruling, but stopped short of requiring the school board to reinstate the prom, as parents had already formulated their plan to hold a private prom.

As one report put it, “There was a private prom all right.” On the Wednesday before the Friday prom date, the school’s attorney announced that “the prom” would be held at the Fulton Country Club. Constance, her date and seven other kids (two with learning disabilities) showed up—only to find that the “real” prom was being held elsewhere. The parents had moved it to a secret location out of the county.

What is wrong with these people? What on earth would cause these parents, who are presumably adults, to do something this cruel and hurtful? Are they that terrified of difference? That devoid of human compassion?

All I could think of when I read the stories about this event was a photo taken at Little Rock High School, when National Guard soldiers sent by President Dwight Eisenhower escorted an obviously terrified young black woman through a crowd determined to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. In that famous picture, a young white woman of approximately the same age, her face contorted with hate, is spitting on the black girl.

And again, I ask the question for which there is no satisfactory answer: what makes people act like this?

The easy answer is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the “other.” Fear of a world that seems increasingly unfamiliar. We can see this in the “Tea Party” gatherings, with their misspelled signs, the accusations of Nazism and Socialism (terms most of them rather clearly could not define if their lives depended on it), and the not-very-veiled racism. We’ve seen it in the American past, with the periodic emergence of groups like the Know Nothings, the Nativists, and others we’d rather forget.

The problem with the explanatory power of this theory is that we all are fearful from time to time. But we don’t all express it in such a hateful and destructive fashion. So what is the distinguishing characteristic? What makes one person decide to put her fears to use by working with others to solve our common problems, while the next person channels it into rage and recrimination?

In a related question, I have always wondered about people who engage in vandalism. Theft I can understand—you want something I have. (I don’t condone it, but I do understand it.) But wanton destruction? Smashing property just for the sake of smashing? That, I have never understood.

After five children and four grandchildren, I know firsthand how fragile all teenagers are, how easily their egos can be damaged and their hopes and aspirations dashed. I also have a gay son and a lesbian granddaughter, and I have watched their struggles to separate their self-images from the hurtful social stereotypes that are still a huge part of American society. I sometimes marvel that any gay child grows up undamaged and whole, given the often thoughtless cruelty of some of those attitudes.

I just cannot imagine purposely doing to any teen what those Mississippi parents did to this child. And I will never understand why.