A Yankee teacher: My battle with the Confederate flag

Former teacher Mark Franek taught English for 20 years, including a stint in Alabama where the question of the Confederate flag arose in his class.

Now an attorney in Philadelphia, Franek discusses how he dealt with the divisiveness and how his students responded.

By Mark Franek

This week’s news about the Confederate flag reminds me of my own battles with the symbol.

The governor of SOuth Carolina called for the removal of the Confederate flag that flies on the Capitol grounds two days day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for the Confederate flag to be removed on June 23, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Debate over the flag flying at the Capitol was again ignited off after nine people were shot and killed during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The governor of South Carolina called for the removal of the Confederate flag that flies on the Capitol grounds in response to the murders of  nine people by an avowed racist during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I’m a liberal white Yankee, born and raised in central Pennsylvania, and the son of a teacher and an engineer.  My first full-time job after college took me to Montgomery, AL., where I taught English from 1993-97 at a prestigious independent school founded in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Pep rallies in the mid-90s at my school often consisted of a tiny pocket of black students in the back row of a white-dominated set of bleachers, despite some teachers’ repeated entreaties to the student body to mix it up.

I was still too intellectually naïve to grasp the complexity of institutional racism and the power that a diverse student body — beyond tokenism — can have on a dialogue about race. But I had good instincts and good teaching mentors.

During the spring of my rookie teaching year, one of my high school students taped a small paper version of the Confederate flag to the back wall of my classroom. After class, I noticed some commotion at the back of a room.  Another student ripped down the flag and tossed it in the trash. The next day, a larger version of the flag appeared (cloth), this time in the student lounge. And another student ripped it down. Then some students started putting stickers of the flag on the outside of their lockers and on their school books and folders. This precipitated an even angrier conflict as more students, white and black, entered the fray.  As far as I could tell, the administrators stayed out of the conflict.

I took the proliferation of Confederate flags — and growing dissent, albeit, in the minority — as my first teachable moment inspired by events outside of the curriculum.

I asked my students to write formal “business” letters to the head of school following the flow of a classical argument (introduction, narration, confirmation, concession, summation).  The question presented was whether the flag should be permitted to be displayed in school. The confirmation and summation paragraphs needed to defend or criticize the actions of their peers. The letter, however, needed to contain a concession paragraph.

The concession part was key — the instructional equivalent of Harper Lee’s admonition in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Atticus Finch says to Scout, his daughter: “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

After the letters were written, we had a classroom discussion. At the outset, I asked students to start by sharing their concessions. Later, I let all students argue their original positions. Luckily, by that time in the school year, I had managed to build up a certain amount of trust, transplanted Yankee that I was. I only entered the discussion to nudge it along, and I kept my opinions mostly to myself.

Many students argued the flag symbolized Southern pride, tradition, and heritage, but conceded that black students (and some white students) may be offended when confronted with the flag in public. Some students argued the flag symbolized racism and bigotry, which no amount of clarification or redefinition can erase, but conceded that white students, at least some of them, may not intend racism or bigotry when displaying the flag in public.

One white student went further and argued the flag was also offensive to the school’s one black teacher. Then this student asked, somewhat rhetorically—in a footnote in her letter to the head of school — why the school employed only one non-white teacher but predominantly black cafeteria and busing staff. This is what you get from time to time as a teacher: A voice that displays an intellectual acumen and conviction years ahead of its time.

Eventually the flags were removed from the school, not by an opposing group or by the administration, but by the students who originally displayed them. These students, most of them white, privileged, and deeply conservative, demonstrated empathy by “walking around” in another person’s “skin.”  They considered the issue from all sides and ultimately determined that citizens have an obligation as an educated people not only to tolerate the beliefs of their peers, but also to make sure that we don’t offend their dignity as well.

As one student put it in his letter — which I managed to keep all these years —“I may not understand exactly how the Confederate flag affects the dignity of black people, but I think their need to remove the symbol from school is more important and justifiable than our desire to rally around it.  Take the flag down and tack it to your bedroom wall. That’s loyalty enough.”

Since I am no longer a teacher and this is not a lesson, I can offer my unadulterated opinion. The times they are a-changin’, to quote Bob Dylan. You can get with the program or sink like a stone.

 

Reader Comments 0

160 comments
AnnetteRf
AnnetteRf

If me flying the Confederate battle flag offends anyone, they don't have to look at it. Problem solved! (BTW I am a Northern Yankee who sees that flag for what it truly stands for: resistance to an unjust government.)

DawgVoiceofReason
DawgVoiceofReason

It's a tough line to draw, sort of like school redistricting or drawing lines for political districts, it's going to be tough to get it right in removing the flag.  It is clear the Confederate Battle Flag is offensive to many people and no longer can be flown by governments.  But, what about places like Stone Mountain that fly the flag.  It "obviously" belongs there but it is no less offensive to the people who are offended by it.  It needs to come down from the pole in Columbia and off the state flag in Mississippi.  But, what about all of the statues and memorials?  Do they need to come down to?  There will be a lot of debate on this as it moves forward.

Starik
Starik

The swastika is an ancient symbol; the Nazis adopted it and now it belongs to them. The Confederate battle flag was adopted by the resistance to the abolition of Jim Crow laws; those people own the symbol now.  Too bad, perhaps, but there it is.

bananafish
bananafish

Try taping a Confederate flag to the outside of your office door or to your cubicle wall and see what happens to your career.  Get with the program or sink like a stone, as the author says.

educationalchanger
educationalchanger

I think we should consider an option that values the heritages of all parties involved.  Let's also display the Juneteenth flag side-by-side with the confederate flag - that would be a balanced approach to the debate in my opinion.  

An American Patriot
An American Patriot

To everyone - As that great American Philosopher Yoga Berra once said......"It ain't over till it's over".   Folks, it ain't over. Stay tuned.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

Now there's a movement to get rid of two state holidays, confederate memorial holiday and Robert E. Lee's birthday. When I began working for the state over a decade ago, I was SHOCKED to learn these were state holidays. Our school never takes those days off, but the holidays are added onto our Christmas break, which is nice because it gives everyone a few extra days to spend with family, or however they wish.
 

Now, while I may find it odd that the state still has these holidays, I find the thought of losing them, especially when I haven't had a raise in over six years, downright infuriating. And let's not forget this would affect all state workers, which includes a lot of black people too. Give us Columbus day and some other holiday we don't currently get in place of them, or compensate us monetarily for losing them. (I would prefer getting two other holidays in lieu of them).

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@atln8tiv 

I don't think that Hispanics and Native Americans feel much better about Columbus Day than you did about those two state holidays!

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

True OrigProf, but other than President's day and Columbus day, I don't know what's left that we don't already get. And no one's talking about doing away with Columbus day...yet.

Awrence
Awrence

@ Quidocetdiscit

History is erased by being rewritten to suit an agenda.

Like teaching school kids that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, when in fact it was not.

Another perfect example is how there is virtually no mention of Nikola Tesla in text books. Whereas Thomas Edison is credited with inventing everything to do with light and electricity.

When in reality Edison's DC was completely wiped out by Tesla's AC. So every time we turn on a light switch or an appliance we actually have Tesla to thank for that reality. Yet thanks to the history being rewritten, the vast majority of people assume it's Edison.

Removing Confederate flags will do nothing to help the problem and will only serve to exacerbate the problem. But it makes the offended feel better. And that's all they really care about.

Just another example of the rampant narcissism that pervades our society.

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@Awrence


"History is erased by being rewritten to suit an agenda.  Like teaching school kids that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, when in fact it was not."


We are not discussing "rewriting" history.  We are discussing removing a flag from public display.  Period.  You are trying to consociate the two, but they are not the same.  I agree with you on "rewriting history" which should be obvious from the rest of my post.


I doubt that "all" those opposed to the Confederate flag care about  is "feeling better."  I suspect they have a lot more concerns that are associated with the display of the flag - but maybe you should ask them, instead of choosing to speak for them.


BTW... ever heard of Henry Woodward, Matthew Evans and Lewis Latimer?  They are mentioned in one of our 3rd grade text books.

OldGaTech
OldGaTech

@Quidocetdiscit @Awrence  Blaming the flag and removing it from public display won't change things.  "Haters gonna hate" as the kids say.  When we can talk, discuss and disagree without yelling, exaggeration and condemnation - actually listening, instead of trying yo "win" the argument, then maybe things can start to get better


class80olddog
class80olddog

I remember when I was a child, one of my favorite songs was "Dixie".  I had very fond memories of it.  It does not contain ANY references to slavery (or to blacks, for that matter).  It is now considered verboten. 

I hate that the white supremacists took the Confederate Battle flag for their emblem and now made it a symbol for them.  If they had taken the song America the Beautiful for their theme song, would it now be forbidden?

It is also sad that Georgia and several other states chose to incorporate the Confederate Battle flag into their state flags as protests against segregation.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog 

"Dixie" was one of Lincoln's favorite songs too, and I think he had it played at the inauguration for his second term. Its tune is slightly melancholy, and its words are those of a refugee remembering the homeland.  I always liked it also, humming it far away in NYC.

An American Patriot
An American Patriot

Yeah folks, let me ask you, "Will the carving on Stone Mountain be ERASED next because it's offensive? Will the SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans) be declared a terrorist organization:  Will our American Flag come under attack because it too is racist?  Folks, part of the history of our great country is being erased right before our very eyes.  This is dangerous.  I have to ask....."WHAT'S NEXT?  Be careful!!!!!

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@An American Patriot


How exactly is the "history" being "erased."  History has already happened.  It can't be erased.  Now, you could argue that "symbols" or certain aspects of history are being removed from the public sphere... but that is about as far as you can take this.  If anything, the push by some to suggest that "slavery" was a supportive system and that slaves actually appreciated being kept in bondage is a far more insidious "rewriting" of history.



“America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”  - Pat Buchanan


"Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African American President." - Michele Bachmann


“Far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery.” - Trent Franks



“If slavery were so God-awful, why didn’t Jesus or Paul condemn it, why was it in the constitution and why wasn’t there a war before 1861?”- Loy Mauch


“The negroes on a well-ordered estate, under kind masters, were probably a happier class of people than the laborers upon any estate in Europe.” - Art Robinson



OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Quidocetdiscit @An American Patriot 

It's interesting to read these quotations, for most of them were in play centuries earlier to justify the slave-trade.  The so-called "benevolence" of slavery for the abducted Africans was always stressed: they were thus introduced to Christianity so their souls might be saved. Their bodies might go through great pain, but the spirit is more important than the flesh, dontcha know.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

@An American Patriot I support state governments' decisions to not fly the flag; like it or not, it's become a symbol of hate, and it's divisive. But I sure would hate to see the carving removed from Stone Mountain. Lots of good memories there for me and I appreciate it not only as a reminder of my childhood, but as an amazing work of art. I also think we should keep confederate memorials. The civil war was arguably the second most important war in our nation's history and we should continue to honor those who fought in it, on both sides. We can't erase history, but we shouldn't try to hide it either. I hope that as a nation, we will be able to find a reasonable balance so that people on both sides of this issue will feel honored. And I'm not including people who use the flag for racist reasons, but those who respect it as a symbol of our history and heritage.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@atln8tiv @An American Patriot 

After the Civil War was over and the soldiers began coming home, on both sides the people wanted memorials to honor their dead. If there are statues of Confederate soldiers in a great many Southern towns, there also are statues of Union soldiers in a lot of Northern towns. I think it was a great tragedy for both sides, and memorials need to be kept. Now the flag is another matter...and the Stars and Bars wasn't the original Confederate flag anyway.

class80olddog
class80olddog

By the way, when you speak of people who were slaves, don't forget those whose unwilling participation in the Vietnam war was mandated.  While this was only temporary slavery, you had no choice, you were told exactly what to do, and you were put in harm's way without your consent.  You BELONGED to the US Military.  Some did not survive the experience.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog 

Oh for Heaven's sake. This is true for all drafted soldiers in all wars.  If you think the military experience is/was anything like chattel slavery, then you don't know much about the latter.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @OriginalProf 

Right you are. I've never experienced chattel slavery either--and neither have you--but I have certainly read and studied it a great deal, for it's well-documented. 


To start, while domestic slavery was long practiced in the world, it meant that the slave still was considered a human who was a servant of another. "Chattel" slavery was different and new. Chattel meant "property," that the slave was simply property like livestock or furniture, and treated as such. The waste and suffering of human life in this state was immeasurable. In much colonial slavery, the owners decided it was cheaper to work them to death and buy new slaves than to take care of them and make them last.  The average term of life in the colonies from sale to death was 7 years.  The term of life in the American South was longer, but few slaves died of old age.


"Slavery" is not a metaphor to throw around lightly, any more than is "Holocaust." Military life during Vietnam was nothing like it.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@OriginalProf

"...the [slave] owners decided it was cheaper to work them to death and buy new slaves than to take care of them and make them last. "


Not hardly.  In 1850, the average cost of a prime field hand (18-30 year old) was $34,000 in today's dollars.  For a skilled worker (ie Blacksmith), the price rose to over $56,000,


A healthy slave meant money for the slave owner.  "Working them to death" was a losing proposition.


Were some slaves abused?  Of course.  Just as some owners mistreated their draft horses, or some parents mistreated their own children.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog Why mention only the Vietnam War?  Mandatory service via the draft is part of our military history.  And service is rewarded in a variety of ways. You can't say the same for slavery.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 @OriginalProf 

 As I noted, I was speaking mainly of colonial slavery (and most of the chattel slavery was in the colonies of the Caribbean, Latin America, and South America), not slavery in the American South. The differences were due primarily to the crops harvested: tobacco, cotton, and rice in our South which were only harvested once a year, and sugar in the colonies, which was harvested 2-3 times a year and required a lot more labor. Also, usually the plantation owners in the colonies lived in the mother country, and their absentee overseers were harsher on the slaves than were the Southern slave-masters who lived on their plantations with their slaves.


That was why being "sold down the river" was such a terrifying prospect to American slaves. The "river" was the Mississippi, and the phrase meant they were being sold to the Caribbean colonies.


American slaves were abused in far worse ways than you imply, but I don't want to argue with you about this.  In any case, the American draftees for the Vietnam War were not comparable to slaves.

Awrence
Awrence

@Lee_CPA2 

Well said. As I stated earlier, the number 1 cause of the Civil War was purely economic. The North was demanding that the Southern States sell all of the cotton they produced to the factories in the Northern States as opposed to exporting cotton to Europe. This was because the North had become economically dependant on producing finished goods made from cotton.

Just to make that it even worse the North then charged tariffs on the finished goods sold to the Southern States' that made those goods unaffordable.

The second major cause was States' rights. 

Slavery didn't even become an issue until 1862 (2 years after the war had already begun). So slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the original cause of the Civil War. A reality which I have no doubt was ever taught by Mark Frenek to his students. After all the "Liberal Yankees" got to write the history books used in the public schools.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I see that fifty years of Cultural Marxism and politically correct propaganda have done their damage.  Ask any student nowadays "What were the causes of the Civil War?" and they will provide the Pavlovian response of "Slavery".


What about the Morrill Tariff?  Or the "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828?


Huh?  What's that?


What about state sovereignty and states rights?  That statehood was the primary form of government and the UNITED STATES was a joining of those many states of which, a state was free to rescind their participation (secede) from teh federation?


What?


Did you realize that 90% of the funding for the federal government was from tariffs collected on imports to the South?


No.


Did you realized that in his first inaugural speech, Lincoln stated that he had no intention of abolishing slavery and they he felt he had no constitutional authority to do so?


No.


No, the students of today know nothing about these things.  Apparently, many adults do not either.

MarkAgain
MarkAgain

louis Farakan or whatever his name is said the smartest thing I've ever heard him say today. Basically, "they should go after the American flag because the blacks have endured more under that flag than they ever did under the confederate flag"

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@MarkAgain


Yankee female?


Named "Mark"?  If you did not notice that, I have to wonder how well you actual read the article.



atln8tiv
atln8tiv

I'm glad to see that states across the south are finally seeing the wisdom in removing the confederate flag from flying over government institutions. It's a change that's been long overdue. However, it concerns me that some stores (Sears, Walmart) have decided to no longer sell the confederate flag "because it might offend someone." That seems like too slippery a slope for my comfort. But if we're going to start eliminating things that some might find offensive, can Rush Limbaugh be next?

bu2
bu2

@atln8tiv 

The Apple store has quit selling a Gettysburg game because of Confederate imagery in the game.  The National Park Service is telling its concessionaires (including at Civil War sights) to quit selling Confederate merchandise.


BCW1
BCW1

It was paraphrased perfectly in Gone With The Wind. "Yankees in Gawgia, whoever heard of such?" That is the problem!!!

Cere
Cere

This flag issue is much like smokers. There are smokers who will put out a cigarette if you tell them it offends you. Others will just turn and blow smoke in your face.

Awrence
Awrence

@Cere the smokers who blow smoke in your face because their smoking "offends you", are doing you a favor.

Whereas the smokers who agree to put out their cigarette are only doing you a disservice.

Thanks for the perfect analogy to the flag issue.

Chi Ali
Chi Ali

Great just what we need another "adventurous" teacher coming to inspire the youth.  Man if teachers and schools would just teach, stop romanticizing your some reformer.  If I was the teacher I would teach, kids want to talk about the confederate flag we talk about how it relates to history the social commentary they can get at home.  Tell you what bet those students who can't grasp the confederate flag and the issue black America (older black America) has with it, bet they understand one thing..tell them to grab a Nazi flag and go talk to a jew.  When the jewish person complains let the little confederate tell him or her "its not a symbol or racism, rather it is my German heritage"...lil confederate wont have any work opportunities after that ...for my part I could care less hell wrap me in a confederate flag..as long as I can get the blond booty and get paid life is good, but please stop all the" don't understand the blacks problem with the flag b"

popacorn
popacorn

@Chi Ali

'Man if teachers and schools would just teach, stop romanticizing your some reformer.'

Worth repeating. 

redweather
redweather

@Chi Ali The odd thing about your posts is that they are usually quite long but at the same time quite empty.  You may have a future as a political speech writer.   

straker
straker

DrProudBlackMan - "that's not what this conversation is about"


That is not what I asked.

BooBooBear
BooBooBear

The institution of America has never met an immigrant it did not hate.  This hatred is proudly seen as what makes America great, because the American philosophy (secret, of course) is: Whatever hatred does not kill you will only make you stronger.  This Yankee teacher in the backward state of Alabama, where it was a shock to find a vast majority of students white shows his ignorance or naivete.  Everywhere across the USA segregation exists and is now promoted as Charter Schools, parochial schools, or private institutions of learning.  There, only the affluent can afford to pay, so "out of state" teachers can be employed.  The fact there were a few black students shows there are affluent black Southerners who do not want their kids in public schools.  The fact those kids segregated themselves, despite pleas to mix, shows how racism is as it always has been - taught in the homes by parents.  The fact this now liberal lawyer writes a convenient reminiscent article of his past, as a poor teacher, makes it seem as if the North is a fantasy land of love and brotherhood.  That racist James Carvel summed up Pennsylvania as: "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between."  I imagine the same racism would have been seen in a Pennsylvania school, had he found a job closer to home.  Maybe they don't place Confederate flags on the walls of schools up North, as symbols of hatred, but they certainly still do the same acts of hatred.  The issue has very little to do with a flag, because people of intelligence see symbols of hatred and know to stay clear of those.  I'm trying to remember how many black children were murdered in Sandy Hook elementary school. Wasn't that in one of the wealthiest Northern states, where cafeteria workers have to be bused in from New York because they have no poor in Connecticut?

I am totally missing the point of anyone wearing the "skin" of poor Southern white sharecroppers, who have been abandoned by the Federal government.  Who is wearing the "skin" of the indigenous tribes of the "New Land," as they are locked up in reservations that dwindled in size, due to American broken promises.  Who is wearing the "skin" of the Central and South American immigrants - legal and illegal - who have been given the role of slave, so the American Negro go to the front of the immigration line with a "get out of racist hatred - FREE" card.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Excellent teacher and insightful prophet, with his closing words: "The times they are a-changin’, to quote Bob Dylan. You can get with the program or sink like a stone."

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Lexi3 


GI Bill, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Social Security, Voting Rights Act, Civil Riights Act =  All liberal programs of the last 90 years.