From Teacup Request to Tempest

The administration of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has poorly judged its approach to a small group students born in Brazil who, upon achieving graduation, respectfully asked to wear scarves on graduation day that celebrate their cultural heritage. Refusing them permission to wear scarves in green, blue and white, the colors of Brazil’s flag, is inconsistent with past experience. Worse, principal Stephen Nixon’s decision has given succor to the xeonophobes in the community, inexplicably turning a small celebration of individual achievement into an ugly display of an underlying, largely ignorant fury at large on the Island. It has brought racism to prominence.

In previous graduation ceremonies, students of African-American descent were given the school’s okay to wear African kente cloths alwith their graduation garb. “Hi Mom” has been written on caps; high tops have been worn below hemlines. Under their gowns students with Scottish blood have been known to wear kilts, and who knows what else, all quite without regard to any official position on the matters. Never have these choices been known to detract from any student’s graduation experience, nor provoke community outrage.

With tinderbox tension in the nation over immigration, this is a textbook teachable moment for the school. Yet as Mr. Nixon offered no explanation when the Gazette sought it, we can only guess what he was thinking.

We know all too clearly what others in the community think, though few will put their names to the ugly accusations they make in online comments. Some newspaper Web sites have abrogated their traditional role — to contribute to an informed approach to community well-being and progress — in favor of publishing vicious and often irrelevant opinions.

Few of these online commentators make any reference to the individual students involved, including the two who willingly spoke on the record in the Gazette, despite their certain knowledge of what the reaction would be. Yet graduating students Andora Aquino and Fillipi Gomes explained themselves by name, demonstrating they are young people of forthrightness. They excel academically, volunteer in their community, play sports, support their peers and respect their elders.

In contrast, online demagogues used their individual stories to try to score political points on national immigration, making critical and unfair assumptions. Such bloviators exploit these students just as some employers exploit immigrants, generally to the economic benefit of the American community.

The students at the center of this controversy display qualities of initiative and hard work that are the cornerstones of American citizenship. So do many other Island residents, whether born overseas or of long lineage on the Island. We all are lucky to live here.

This makes Mr. Nixon’s decision all the more perplexing. His choice has turned the students’ teacup request into a tempest. With a sometimes mob-like tea party mood arising in the country, this community needs a principal who will lead wisely, with courage and perspective.