By Sophie Galowitz
While many people expect political tension over Thanksgiving break, I thought I would be returning home to my oasis of liberal consensus in Newton, Massachusetts. I remembered that even as the national conversation exploded in the spring of 2016, in this very liberal Boston suburb, my high school’s mock primary debates were argued with smug irony: “Marco Rubio” and “Ted Cruz” going at it playfully, each from behind a Bernie-stickered laptop.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I picked my brother up from high school and caught up with my film teacher. Talking to Mr. Weintraub, I was surprised to learn how the polarized rhetoric of the “real world” had somehow entered Newton South High School. He described the souring discourse within his own classroom. But the source of the breach occurred just down the hall. Mr. Weintraub’s hallway opens into a lofty atrium that links several wings of the school. This Wednesday, it’s quiet, and my footsteps echoed intrusively. I wasn’t used to it being so empty; I remember chatty students and lunch detritus everywhere. In the center, the “L-bench”— named for its shape—was now clean and vacant. A new paint job masked its usually scrawled-upon surface.
The designated hangout for 11th graders, the L-bench maintained a consistent reputation even as a new class of regulars passed through each year. My brother, a 10th grader, observed that it seemed to be the same rowdy group all day: “you get this sense that they’re not supposed to be there, or they’re supposed to be somewhere else.” This is pretty much how I remember it. The administration had closed it down in the past for noise, garbage, or vandalism—normal stuff. But the fall of 2016 was different.
That September, reports of sexual harassment around the L-bench surfaced at a panel run by FEM club, a student feminist group, with students in the audience coming forward one after another. “Part of the issue was catcalling,” explained my friend Mona, a senior. “A lot of girls complained that they didn’t feel safe walking in that general vicinity, because the guys were shouting ratings at them or moaning their names.”
Mr. Weintraub explained how the harassment, while seeming totally out of place at Newton South to begin with, seemed especially eerie given its parallels to the national rhetoric. “Trump’s words and actions placed sexual assault at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I think some young women just put their foot down and said, ‘Out there, okay; I can’t control everyone. Here at South? No way.’” The administration put their foot down as well. Frantic to stem the harassment at its apparent source, they resolved to close the L-bench indefinitely.
“This was a dumb choice,” responded Juliet, a member of FEM club. “Because one, news-flash, catcallers can congregate anywhere; two, it just made the kids who sat at the L-bench angry; three, due to the tremendous lack of clarity, all of their anger ended up directed towards FEM.”
The backlash was almost instantaneous. Debates raged in the classrooms, hallways, and, of course, on social media. Newton South quickly became polarized. While many leapt to the side of threatened students, the L-benchers, feeling themselves threatened by the administration’s encroachment on their right to a space in the school, lashed out. In their attempt to maintain Newton South’s status as an ideological sanctuary within a troubled nation, the administration unconsciously pitted students against one another. Thus, the national discord reverberated through Newton South.
In line with the administration’s effort to shield their students from the bigotry which was running rampant in the country at large, on February 28 of this year the superintendent of the Newton public schools, along with a number of other superintendents in the area, released a statement of the district’s commitment to protecting students from the Trump administration’s threats, namely protecting their immigrant and transgender students. This called to mind the nationwide increase in sanctuary cities. While becoming a “sanctuary” applies mostly to legal protection, it also communicates: “we care about you being safe here.” This is the most important statement a school can make. But, it seems, it’s easier for Newton South to protect its students from a bigoted president than similar threats from within.
So, I lamented the loss of Newton South to an election season so polarizing that it caused the sturdiest bubble to implode. The L-benchers seemed to mirror the alt-right in their backlash against the “politically correct” administration and against FEM club. For me, the incident represented the end of an era of agreement and clarity—Newton South seemed like it should be the last place to succumb to this ruin. But apparently it just did.
With horror, I’ve been fixated on the L-bench for months, understanding it as indicative of a terrible change in our country. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how the L-bench and its players aren’t simply mimicking the national drama, folding to the vitriolic rhetoric broadcast online and on TV. Maybe they’re just angsty teens being angsty. And, feeling under siege by a “correct” and perhaps coddling administration, they just happen to reflect the same anxieties which underpin resentment towards liberal authorities nationwide.