Roadmap for the future may be found in the past

Roadmap for the future may be found in the past

By Eric Fox, Associate Principal Jenks High School

On September 10, 2001, I was a husband, father of two expecting a third, an American history teacher and assistant football and wrestling coach at Jenks High School. On September 12, 2001, those statements were still true, but of course, things had changed dramatically.

As part of my duties as a football coach, I had been working since the weekend on preparations for the “Backyard Bowl” rivalry against the Union Redskins. This annual game had achieved mythic status and seemed to consume our communities each year.

Although some high school teams played their games that weekend, the decision was made that we would not compete in that regular season as a small token of respect for the national tragedy and those who had lost their lives.  

I remember being a history teacher in the classroom on Sept. 11. We listened to my radio to try to figure out what was happening. There was great confusion and I tried to reassure students (and myself) sometimes with new information and analysis but sometimes at poor attempts at humor to lighten the mood.

I had students with parents who were flying that day, a time before a cell phone in every pocket and instantaneous communication via text, so there was legitimate concern about family members.

Even in the days that followed, there were moments of numbness, sadness, trauma and anger, but one thing I remember clearly in my school and my community — there was a time of coming together and a firm resolve to move forward boldly while also recognizing the healing that needed to take place.

As a history teacher, I have often walked students through historical calamities, challenges, and tragedies by examination of what went wrong but also what went right. Who emerged with voices of reassurance, hope, and inspiration during times of turmoil, crisis, and chaos?

In a funeral eulogy delivered on September 18, 1963 after four young black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, were killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in part that although their lives were cut short by hatred, the murdered girls still had lessons to teach. He said, “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution … Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.” 

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois and delivered a famous speech called “The House Divided Speech.”  He said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” 

Unfortunately, there was an attempt to dissolve the Union which was only avoided by the bloodiness of the Civil War.

Even as the war was winding down and as Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term just a month before his assassination, in his Second Inaugural Address, he set the tone by stating, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.” 

Though the war had been horrific with numerous atrocities and great loss, Lincoln called the people to set about the important work of caring for those around them including the casualties of the hostilities regardless of which side they had been on.

Since the house divided against itself could not stand, the strident calls for division had to give way to the more important work of healing. It is written that “blessed are the peacemakers” and I’ve witnessed, even in my time in this community, that in periods of great challenge, there are those who emerge as champions of goodness and beacons of hope.  

History warns us of dangers that can result from strident and disrespectful discourse that if unabated, can lead to more serious consequences. History also reveals examples of humble service in the pursuit of a common good. 

There was not a Backyard Bowl in 2001 and even then, it was a controversial decision. There certainly was not only “one right answer” for what to do that weekend in terms of paying appropriate respect. 

Ultimately, what was important was not what decision was made about that one game, but how we would emerge as a team, school, community, and nation.  Would we live in fear, anger and confusion or would we develop a new resolve to come together and be better than we were before?

Obviously, a football game or even a storied rivalry can never compare to terrorist attacks, racial violence, warfare or even the enormous pressures of a pandemic. But I am often inspired by stories of underdogs who find a way to battle through adversity and emerge stronger, as individuals and as members of a family, team, school or community united and resolved to leave things better than how they found them.

It is obvious that improvements in society are still needed and I’m looking forward to moving ahead “…with malice toward none; with charity for all…”

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