It was summer, 2002, and I was interning at St. Paul’s School’s Advanced Studies Program: a 5 week academic program for New Hampshire students from public high schools, designed to give them a taste of the private school experience. I attended the program myself in high school, worked for the program as an office assistant for another summer, and was thrilled to be back as an intern. I was co-teaching Writing Workshop with a master teacher, and leading outdoor adventure in the afternoons.
I wish I could remember the details of the short story we were discussing. It was called “Canning Jars,” I think, and I can see it, marked up in my 3-ring binder. I can remember the take-aways: that our words have power; the line, “I hate a woman Jew.” I can recall my students’ faces as we talked about language and ownership. I can see their frenzied writing and feel the hot, still, humid air.
The next morning in chapel, the director of the program stood up. Again, the context has left me, but I recall vividly that he, a bumbling white man in his 40’s, put on a pretend yarmulke and started dancing around, waving his hands, saying, “Look at me, look at me, I’m Tevi, from ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” There was nervous laughter. I locked eyes with a couple of my students. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed. I watched the other interns, sure that other people would find this anti-Semitism unacceptable, but I saw nothing. Just bemused, slightly hungover slouches. “Oh, he’s harmless and ridiculous,” their postures and expressions said.
Except he wasn’t. I sat there, dumbfounded by the disconnect between what I was teaching and what I was witnessing from the man who was supposed to embody the goals of the program: to help student to develop critical thinking skills, to question their environments, to broaden their horizons. And here was the director, throwing that on its head.
I went to find him later that day. I told him that his performance had bothered me, and that I was there on behalf of my students. I explained my thoughts about what we were trying to do that summer in our community, and the way his actions had undermined this. He launched into a tirade about his own Greek heritage, as if that gave him license to say whatever he wanted about other minorities. “I’m the most ethnic guy in this program,” he told me. It was funny, and it was horrifying. And then he said words that have since haunted me: “You’re a white girl from New Hampshire, Megan. What do you know about ethnicity?”
What do I know about ethnicity? Well, for starters, I knew that when my 19 year old Lithuanian great grandmother was betrothed to a 40 year old rabbi, she told her mother, “give me a year,” and found passage on a ship to Ellis Island. She knew nobody, met my great grandfather, and settled in Pittsburgh. I knew that while I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I was Jewish by heritage, with beloved great aunts in Manhattan who had stayed more in touch with Jewish culture than my own grandmother had. I knew that, had I been alive during the holocaust, the Nazis wouldn’t have cared whether I were practicing or not. And I knew, deeply, that I owed this man none of my story.
While I have thought of that summer and of the director’s words many times over the past fourteen years, the event feels especially haunting in light of Donald Trump’s current success in the primaries. The idea that Trump can say whatever he wants, about any minority, and then become defensive and childish when he is criticized, reminds me of the director’s utter certainty of his position. It’s this certainty that scares me. Where is the room for possibility, for growth, for change? Academic programs and our country alike deserve leaders who value multiple voices. This is not the time to shake our heads in disbelief, and then get on with our days. What this white girl from New Hampshire knows about ethnicity is that our stories are what define us. We deserve leaders who are unshaken by this truth.