This weekend, a video went viral featuring a group of teenage boys on a school trip from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky. In footage posted to Twitter, a large of group of them jeer and chant around a Native American protester outside of the Lincoln Memorial; he’d been at the inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ March, while the boys had just attended the anti-abortion March for Life, clad in Trump gear.
Many saw the video, which featured MAGA-hatted student Nicholas Sandmann smirking at Omaha Nation tribal elder Nathan Phillips, as an disturbing visual representation of the white, male privilege being fostered among young men throughout the country, and particularly at single-sex religious institutions. Others charged that the video had misrepresented the situation and that the students were being unfairly vilified — Sandmann’s family, in particular, released a statement after retaining a PR firm insisting that he’d merely been engaging in “silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.” We talked to alums of Catholic boys’ schools to ask for their read on the incident.
‘The whole structure of their lives is isolated.’
I went to a school that attempted to stress multiculturalism, but I think that the thing that stands out to me most now is just the inherent classicism of Catholic high schools. I lived like 45 minutes outside Detroit, at the time one of the richest counties in America. We were in this building gated off from the surrounding community. Rarely did we actually leave campus to eat or anything like that. And I think a lot of us were raised to be afraid of the area we were going to school in. Seeing these kids, the fact that they had the privilege to travel there from Kentucky to espouse their obviously shitty beliefs, it paints a very clear picture of how isolated they are and how probably the whole structure of their lives is isolated, with nobody presenting beliefs that are counter to theirs.
I think that look [on Sandmann’s face] is permanently ingrained into the rich, white kid private school arsenal of facial expressions. I went to this thing called a Kairos Retreat and it’s supposed to be this big retreat where you’re supposed to find this sort of find spiritual rejuvenation, and all these guys were supposed to be getting up confessing their deepest secrets. Of course, that would be way too much to ask of these guys. I remember this guy who was kind of a bully got up and started talking about how he was having sex with his girlfriend and how she had a pregnancy scare. Supposedly it was him confessing how afraid he was, but the look on his face was so smug, just like: I can get up and I can brag to all these guys about how I’m having sex right now. There was no contrition or actual legitimate fear in his face. The fact that he could get up in front of a class including teachers and say these things, it was definitely a feeling of: I can I can say whatever I want to say right now and this is not going to come back and affect me. —Dom, Detroit, graduated 2001
‘You want to be the alpha.’
I went to an all-boys Catholic school that was based in New York City, so I’m guessing the student body is probably going to be a little more liberal than a school in Kentucky.
Obviously the one kid in the middle of the video, staring down the Native American elder, is gonna be the memorable image. But he was far from the only person being a foolish dickhead that day. Everyone was chanting, chopping, making fools of themselves. And no one was trying to defuse the situation or get their buddies to stop. Definitely in an all-boys environment, being the one who’s trying to cause trouble or being the most extroverted can make you be seen as the alpha. You want to be the alpha. Things like introspection or nuance aren’t always encouraged.
One thing that me and my friends have talked about — you know, fellow grads — is the way that the internet works and the way that things like Reddit and YouTube and 4chan can make the infection of right-wing, MAGA-type politics spread, especially among young kids online. That’s something we are openly curious about, if that could potentially be a problem at the school we went to today. —Tom, New York, graduated 2009
‘I have been on the receiving end of that stare.’
[The Covington incident] all felt very familiar — the disrespect to elders, to indigenous people. There was a field trip my class took once, and on the way back an indigenous woman approached the bus to sell her handicrafts and some of my classmates taunted her with questions and double entendres.
It all felt very familiar. I am familiar with that bullying smirk. I have been on the receiving end of that stare. As an overweight and effeminate not-yet-out gay teen in the late ’90s and early ’00s I was bullied on a daily basis. That “I’m not doing anything, I’m just staring at you, so you can’t tell on me” look is forever burned on my brain, that entitled smirk. Being in a Catholic school that teaches that homosexuality is a sin only made them more entitled to believe they were in the right. It was a huge part of the environment; a macho, misogynistic, classist, athletic culture was not only the norm but sometimes even encouraged.
Unless it got really out of hand, teachers and priest turned a blind eye to bullying and fighting. And yet I was once called into a teacher’s office for “inappropriate behavior” with a friend, when we were literally hugging. Even when the principal or someone higher up would be involved they didn’t really do anything, just give the bullies a slap on the wrist and that was it. They believed the bullying would “make you more of a man.” —Carlos, Mexico City, graduated 2004
‘Anytime you give boys a reason to rally around something, they will.’
I have to say I wasn’t shocked. I think my read on it was it seemed like a “boys will be boys” thing, and especially “teenage boys will be teenage boys.” It did kind of get me thinking about my formative experiences in an all-boys school, where I think that the pervasiveness of a mono-culture was unspoken but usually pretty heavily enforced.
I think anytime you get a group of men or boys together and give them a reason to rally around something, they will probably do it. I definitely encountered that in my high school and fraternity days. One time, at the Thanksgiving football game, we unexpectedly beat another Catholic school, and ended up breaking our brand-new football stadium bleachers which had just been renovated because there was so much rowdiness. It got totally destroyed in celebration. Certainly strange cultural norms perpetuate themselves over the years. For example, hitting people in the balls was a thing for some reason. Everyone knows how much it hurts and how embarrassing it is, and you’re also touching another man’s privates. Yet it just seems like a thing that, despite how harmful it is, still perpetuates over the years. —Trevor, Massachusetts, graduated 2004
’You lose the instinct for pluralism.’
The thing about the Covington students is, I know there has been a lot of attention on [Sandmann] and that sort of mysterious expression on his face. People have said it’s like “the face of patriarchy.” He himself said something like “I was just trying to hold an impassive expression so as not to increase the confrontation” or something like that. What that reminded me of was the kind of moral paralysis that someone who isn’t like you presents to a Catholic school boy. I think the danger in these institutions is you kind of lose the instinct for pluralism, it sort of rots away when you’re around people who come from the same socioeconomic, religious, and gender background as you.
And maybe the boys were afraid, but what is that fear? I know my education was utterly devoid of the evils that my community might be implicated in.
The other thing, too — the thing that I was thinking today is that the extent to which you don’t come out of monotheistic education radicalized is the extent to which you don’t believe it. So how, if you’re a 14-year old-kid — and when you’re that age you don’t have any real ideas of your own, you believe what you’re told — how can you not have anything but bewilderment and contempt for, say, an indigenous man? If you believe what you’ve been taught, these people aren’t going to heaven. And if you don’t believe what you’ve been taught, you’re a young apostate. But I get why they’re Trump supporters. I mean, the Catholic heaven is defended by a wall. St. Peter is like a border guard for it. It makes total sense, right? —Michael, Toronto, graduated 2002