Skip to main content

Back in about 2005, I was teaching at the Haverford School for Boys. One day we were reading Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s ‘The Lynching,” two strikingly different poems by African American writers of the 1930s.

We were comparing the points of view of these two men with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, when one of the students asked plaintively, “Do we have to read this stuff? I never owned any slaves. Why are you trying to make me feel guilty for what my ancestors did?”

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty for what your ancestors did,” I replied. “I’m trying to encourage you to live your life so that your descendants won’t have to feel ashamed of you.”

 Six months later, at the end of the school year, that same student presented me with a large bowl he had made in ceramics class. Written around the rim of that bowl was my quote. Obviously, what I had said had registered with this young man deeply enough for him to have remembered it and incorporated it into his artwork. I hope he has also gone on to incorporate it into his life.

I was thinking about that this morning when an old friend from the community I grew up in told me that the Pennridge School Board in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has disbanded its Diversity Equity Inclusion Committee, replacing it with an unwieldy ad hoc committee chaired by a school board president who has gone on record that there is no such thing as structural or institutional racism in her community or the nation at large.

I wonder what would happen if I were teaching at Pennridge today, and I tried to teach these two poems by Hughes and McKay.

I’m reminded of that great Jack Nicholson line in A Few Good Men, adapted to the Pennridge School District: “You want the truth, kids? You can’t handle the truth!”

Indeed, the free exchange of ideas doesn’t seem to be much in vogue with the Pennridge School District these days. Just last week, I learned that teachers in the Pennridge system were “encouraged” not to discuss the January 6th, 2020, attack on our nation’s Capitol. Given what I know about the current composition of the board, my guess is that any teacher who wants to keep his or her job will be duly “encouraged” to comply.

Teachers have been instructed instead to reply to student questions by saying, “the investigation is ongoing and as historians we must wait until there is some distance from the event for us to accurately interpret it.”

But we all watched live and in real time what was happening on January 6th last year, and it doesn’t take a historian to interpret what we were watching. Over 700 people have been charged with criminal behavior, and many of them have already been convicted or pled guilty.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

And now nearly a dozen people—so far—have just been indicted for seditious conspiracy. Sedition. Look that one up. And you’re going to tell me that I don’t understand what happened that day? I listened to a soon-to-be ex-president tell his supporters to “fight like hell,” and then watched as thousands of those supporters fought like hell to stop the legitimate transfer of presidential power, something that has never before happened in the history of this nation.

I’m reminded of that great Jack Nicholson line in A Few Good Men, adapted to the Pennridge School District: “You want the truth, kids? You can’t handle the truth!”

Pennridge High students in Pennsylvania who walk out of school during a rally to prevent gun violence were given detention. They responded by staging a quiet protest during their punishment (The Morning Call)

Pennridge High students in Pennsylvania who walk out of school during a rally to prevent gun violence were given detention. They responded by staging a quiet protest during their punishment (The Morning Call)

And that brings to mind another Pennridge lunacy (it’s hard to come up with a better word): armed security guards in the halls of the schools. How much protection will they provide? During the horrendous attack at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in Florida in 2018, an armed law enforcement officer hid in his car rather than confronting the gunman. Will our PHS cops be any braver? Let’s hope we never find out.

But if we do, let’s hope that the two of them—that’s all the armed guards they’ve hired—are in the right building at the right time. There’s the high school, of course, but what about the three middle schools? Don’t those kids need protection? Look up Rigby Middle School (Idaho) or Washington Middle School (New Mexico) or Cummings K-8 Optional School (Tennessee).

And what about the district’s seven elementary schools? Ever heard of Sandy Hook Elementary? Just how and where are those two armed guards deployed every day? Maybe the Pennridge School District needs to hire a whole platoon of armed security guards. How about the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers?

Or maybe the answer isn’t more guns, but rather saner gun safety policies, better mental health care, and a community determined to teach tolerance, inclusion and diversity.

But don’t try that one out in today’s Pennridge School District. When a group of students peacefully protested gun violence a few years ago in the wake of the Parkland shootings, joining thousands of other students nationwide, hundreds of them were punished by school administrators with Saturday detention.

This is my alma mater. My foster mother. I graduated from Pennridge High School in 1966. I was a varsity trackman, vice president of student council, a member of the Honor Society, and a commencement speaker. I’m on the Pennridge Wall of Fame. My father was pastor of St. Stephen’s Church for 29 years, and my mother taught for many years in the Bucks County Intermediate Unit. They’re both buried up at the top of Market Street in Perkasie.

W. D. Ehrhart Promo Image

But I find myself ashamed of what is happening in the Pennridge School District these days. That it is emblematic of what has been happening all over this country does not make it any less shameful. In the halls and classrooms of Pennridge High School, Bob Hollenbach taught me how to think clearly, John Diehl taught me tolerance and humanity, Wayne “Pud” Helman taught me fair play. I wonder which teachers today’s Pennridge students will remember, and what those teachers will be remembered for.

W. D. Ehrhart