As sure as October brings pumpkins and pep rallies, I know I’m going to hear dis-spiriting news about some school’s choice of spirit week theme.
The details vary, but the story is depressingly familiar. Around homecoming time, schools designate a day—or even a full week—for activities intended to build school spirit. Organizers come up with ideas for “dress up” days where students can come to school in, say, the team colors or costumes to reflect a theme.
In years past, we’ve heard about students donning Afro wigs, about “redneck” days and, when the class color was white, about a student wearing a pillowcase with eyeholes that bore a striking resemblance to a KKK hood and taunting a biracial classmate.
This year’s version comes from West Virginia and involves “hobo” day, originally “homeless day.” Despite the name change, reports describe pictures posted on social media of teens in tattered and dirty clothes, someone pushing a shopping cart and “two women wearing knit caps and holding a cardboard sign that reads ‘will teach for food,’” suggesting that teachers participated, too.
In a response that’s second only to “no comment” in the category of What Not to Say to the Press, school officials claimed that “the event was not meant to make fun of people living on the streets.” After reiterating that the intent was not “malicious,” the principal dug the hole a little deeper, suggesting that students might have been dressed as “a migrant worker from the late 1800s.”
Because so many 19th-century migrant workers pushed shopping carts.
The heart of the matter is that the response to these spirit-day blunders should not focus on intent, but on impact. I can’t imagine the officials’ claim of innocent intent meant much to a student with a relative on the streets or whose family has experienced homelessness.
Here’s a list of questions school officials might ask themselves before signing off on theme days that invite kids to ridicule, mock or mimic people’s identities:
- What is the message we’re sending or endorsing?
- Are we reinforcing the stereotypes we know exist about the reality of life as a _____?
- What’s the actual educational value of this day? (Yes, my true colors emerge: I HATED pep rallies and spirit days—and the accompanying sugar consumption—when I was a high school teacher.)
- Is this day in accord with our school mission statement and core values?
- What’s the worst that could happen? (And really use your imagination.)
Want to promote good feeling, school spirit and support the kinds of outcomes that are probably aligned with your school’s mission and values? Think about banishing days that promote stereotyping in favor of an event that encourages understanding.
Something, perhaps, like Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.