The woman at the desk let me in before my thumb hit the doorbell. I’d walked through these glass double doors every day for four years. She couldn’t have been there for more than 18 months since I had left. Behind her on the wall, my name rested in white paint, long dry.
My feet dragged me toward the hallway on the right, dutifully following the directions of an older, teenage mind, which had once labored over integrals three doors down. Reacting to her owl-like gaze which swiveled to follow my feet, my head steered me toward the receptionist’s desk to introduce myself so as not to be seen as a threat. A forced-on name tag would brand me with an outsider’s status in my own high school. What was I doing here anymore?
Over lunch a month prior, the younger brother of a friend of mine (still enrolled at the school) mentioned a rumor that the institution was not replacing the recently departed diversity director. Not a single black or Hispanic male rose with my graduating class. And they were not replacing their diversity director.
After heading to college, I had begun to reflect on the times I had seen a new student of color be subjected to subtle racism in the halls. I now realized that they simply tacked on smiles to diffuse tension.
For a school that advertised teaching its students the value of equality, it seemed to wallow in hypocrisy and cultivate a student body steeped in ignorance, stemming from unchecked racial and socioeconomic privilege. And I hated a part of myself for coming from it.
I wanted a clean break, to run away from the place that I grew up in — to be a better person.
Then I heard that rumor. Rage at my school harmonized with blasted mid-2000s angsty Fall Out Boy on the drive home. I entered my home pacing and complaining. “So?” my mom asked. “Do something about it.”
And one month later, that’s how I found myself waiting for a meeting with the head of the school, walking through the double doors to a place that used to be my home, but no longer was. I would have to wear a nametag, but it would also say that I was class of 2017.
Like a ghost, I haunted the halls in search of old teachers. I prepared for polite hellos and a reconnaissance mission for both the real facts behind the diversity director’s departure and the most urgent reforms (after all, I am a white student — better to support existing ideas from teachers who had been fighting for diversity long before I had). I was here as a supporter, not a leader.
Warm smiles and outstretched arms greeted me at every room, no upheld crosses or modified vacuum cleaners to capture an old ghost.
Passing the Smart Board on which an old teacher had used a dry-erase marker, tattooing the word “protes” (missing a “t”); the table in my chemistry room where we made ice cream probably one too many times; the group of students giving a presentation I had two years prior; and most of all, the teachers whom I’d always credited for helping me become who I am despite the collective environment of which I had been so critical. They made me miss this place. They made me feel familiar upon return. They assured me that I still cared, had to care about making this place better. And if I or those who held my beliefs, didn’t, the same toxic environment I had complained about would perpetuate itself onto the next generation.
When the meeting finally came, the rumor turned out to be a partial truth. They had diffused the diversity director’s responsibilities into a new larger team of administrators who sought to address the school’s feelings. And they cared, too, about making the school a more welcoming place. There were still areas in advocating for broader pushes for diversity in things like hiring, admissions and big picture goals where the school still had a long way to go – where they needed to be challenged by someone who had left and come back and who they were willing to listen to because of past personal ties. There were still members of the community who were undoubtedly, vehemently pushing back against diversity reforms, and they needed to be met with an opposite and stronger counterbalancing force. A force partially composed of former students who cared.
Often, we see something in our past that makes us want to run as far away as possible. Or we feel so removed from it that it doesn’t seem our place to push for reforms in a place that we’ve already left. But our roots are our roots. And what disappoints us about our past will corrupt and tarnish those we love and have loved.
Unless we intervene. Unless we go back.
Jacob Hutt is a sophomore in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .