When I entered Luther College as a sophomore transfer student way back in the fall of 1993, I didn't realize that Luther College and the town of Decorah, Iowa, would be the place I would call "home" for most of my life. When people ask me, "where are you from?" I don't really know how to answer. "I was an Army brat" is my usual response. I went to five different elementary schools, lived in three different states and two different countries by the time I was 12 and finally settled in Puyallup, Washington, before deciding to come to Luther (I was supposed to come to Luther my first year of college, but that's another story…)
After three years of undergraduate instruction at Luther and three years as an alumni guest lecturer in voice and choir, I found myself aching to be back in Decorah. I longed to raise my children in this idyllic community where they could ride their bikes to the pool, walk to school and hang out at the Co-op downtown. I also wanted the connection that came with living in a small town, as opposed to the millions of people I was living among in the metropolitan areas of Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, from 2005 through 2013. I was anxious to come home.
When I opened up my email two weeks ago, I was surprised to read about the incident involving hateful messages being stomped into the snow on our Luther football field. I was surprised, but I was not shocked. Why wasn't I shocked? Having lived in Decorah for five years, I have seen a darker side of our community that isn't always talked about, one that lingers in Decorah and probably among our student population as well.
Over the past few weeks at the dinner table, my two middle school children and one high school child have told my husband and I about the racial slurs that are prevalent in their schools. They told me about the rape jokes that are told and names they are called because they claim to be "feminist" or because two of my children identify as part of the LGBTQ community. They've had children tell them that "God didn't make them like that" and when they ask them who says so, "my mom does." My youngest told me that boys put down other people by using the "f" word (and not the four-letter one) and regularly use the "r" word as part of normal conversation. I felt like my bubble has burst. I realized that much of the hatred and discrimination I was trying to shield my children from could not be escaped, even in Decorah, Iowa.
My students entered their classes for the past two weeks with a heavy burden on their shoulders. Although we live in a beautiful community, seemingly tucked away from much of the world, we still experience hate. We still experience violence. We still experience racial slurs and discrimination that we hoped died a long time ago. My students came into class these past weeks with a look in their eyes that seemed to say, "can someone please talk to us about this? How could this happen? What can we do to make all people feel safe and welcome?" And I had to look at them and honestly say, "I don't know what we can do."
What I was able to tell them was to take a look at their music. It is completely serendipitous that we happen to be working on music with texts about peace and justice. In fact, Collegiate Chorale's entire tour program focuses on "Prayers for Peace." We are singing a piece in Aurora titled, "Still I Rise." It's no accident that this piece shares the title with Maya Angelou's poem by the same name. My response to them is the same that I have to remind myself, that it is our duty to stand amongst our friends of color, those in the LGBTQ community, those of different faiths, those who are disabled, and let them know that we are willing to fight the fight against hate and discrimination. We will not be silenced. To quote Maya Angelou, "Still I Rise, I Rise, I Rise."