Sorry to Burst Your Bubble. . . (Extended)

In a shining $81 million dollar building with new furniture and facilities, housing approximately 1,800 students each with personal iPads, privilege lurks around every purple and gold corner. As students within a facility with incredible resources, the privileges we have are an inescapable part of how we function. These privileges, whether academic, social or even financial, create a bubble of safety around us. 

In times of uncertainty, our bubble at Johnston is easy to fall back on, because the norms, traditions, and viewpoints within it seem to be tried, tested, and withstanding of the test of time. Yet, it can also hinder our ability to grow beyond the traditions and norms that we simply accept to be true. “If you’ve only ever grown up in Johnston and if you’ve only ever attended really great facilities that are not 100 years old, you just don’t know what you don’t know,” superintendent Laura Kacer said. 

Our self-created bubble, supported with an abundance of privilege, is one that we need to examine and evaluate the costs and benefits of.

Understanding what Johnston encompasses is difficult from the inside looking out; from the outside looking in though, the bubble spans a number of matters. 

For one, race. The first glimpse of Johnston’s community is through the district website, which boasts district-wide accomplishments. At the very top of the page, a slideshow of carefully curated images cycle through various situations: multiple students with differing ethnicities collaborating effectively, disabled students beaming widely, and blue-collar workers operating diligently. 

All of these situations can and likely do occur in Johnston, but problematically, none of the pictures are actually of Johnston; they are simply stock images, cherry-picked to portray an idealistic version of our desired self-image. Administration cites the high quality of the photos as the reason for their use of stock images. “When you put information out there, you want really good photos to go with that,” Kacer said. “We probably couldn’t duplicate that with our students without taking quite a bit of time.”

While the desire to have clean images is valid, the implications behind those images create equally valid concerns. To some extent, our misrepresentation of Johnston’s demographic creates a distorted bubble that can cloud our own perception of what Johnston looks like. We begin to believe that Johnston has a truly diverse community with a perfectly happy student body, when in reality, that may not be the case.

The bubble also spans the idea of socioeconomic status. The 1:1 iPad system is the first of our socioeconomic privileges. “The idea of iPads is a very privileged concept, because it’s the assumption that everyone can go home to a power source and Wi-Fi and be able to do their homework on time,” Matthew Ding ‘20 said. 

Privilege is also evident by the number of students with AirPods and conversations of Spring Break trips to Cabo. “It’s an unnecessary purchase, but every time I walk down the hallway, every single person is on their third pair of AirPods, because they lost the first two,” Precious Maryah Pate ‘20 said. “There’s two levels. There’s the bourgeoisie and the poor people. The bourgeoisie have the AirPods, and us with strings are garbage.”

Not every student is wealthy enough to have backup pairs of AirPods on standby or travel to exotic destinations for Spring Break, but there are enough students with those characteristics, that we perceive Johnston to be overwhelmingly wealthy. We accept the apparent norm of wealth at Johnston that fills our bubble. 

Economic disparities do exist at Johnston, but they aren’t reflected in how we interact with each other. Speaking about those who are on free and reduced lunch programs seems to be a taboo topic for the majority of us who would rather discuss the new BMW someone crashed in the parking lot. “Issues, like poverty, don’t seem like problems among the student body, since the people who are very prominent in the student body aren’t very representative of those problems,” Ding said. 

At times, the bubble is simply a vague concept that can’t necessarily be quantified. Recently however, the impacts of our bubble materialized and had very pressing real-world impacts.

On Dec. 6, 2019, the student section at a basketball game against Des Moines North High School were under fire for being disrespectful and allegedly racist. During the game, students were seen holding a white bed sheet– some calling it a “curtain of intimidation”– with the word “RAT” on it and wearing masks with President Donald Trump’s face on it.

Media reported on the perceived racism of the students’ actions, linking the bed sheet to comments made earlier in 2019 by President Donald Trump in which he called the city of Baltimore, which has an African American population of 63%, “rat infested”. Coaches of the Des Moines North basketball team were upset by the Johnston student section likening the predominantly African American team to rats.

After the event, the students involved defended their actions on Twitter. Overall, they intended to support a Johnston player whose nickname was “Rat”, not necessarily antagonize the players of the opposing team.

The district handled the matter privately. “When we became aware of other perceptions from other school districts, we had conversations around understanding perception, understanding what we were doing, what we were thinking, being self-aware, and understanding how our actions can be perceived by others,” principal Ryan Woods said. “A lot of it was just reflection and learning and setting some goals to do better in the future.”

Ultimately, administration punished the involved students with the consequence of revoking their right to attend all future basketball games until Winter Break. The decision sparked outrage from students, who tweeted their discontent with the consequence and vowed to not attend any future basketball games. As a cheerleader, Pate saw the effects first hand. “Some of our players are kind of mad that the student section won’t come to the games, because “you’re supposed to support us, but you’re not there, because of something you did” which is misplaced anger,” Pate ‘20 said. “Imagine having no one at any of your games.” 

The controversy at North was a wake-up call for us to reflect on our environment and its resulting advantages. While students may not have intended anything truly malicious by their actions, outsiders still had negative perceptions. The bubble we have at Johnston distorted our views of how free our speech is and blinded us to the consequences that would follow. Even apart from free speech, the overwhelming privileges in our bubble revolving around race and finances create a false norm that we believe in. 

Administration itself has begun to evaluate the bubble within the school system. Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, Joy Wiebers, the Director of Student Support and Equity, implemented equity training for teachers. During days of professional development, teachers have attended training covering topics like bias, white privilege, and microaggressions. “We have asked teachers to think about their own bias and how it impacts their teaching,” Wiebers said. “We have encouraged teachers to be vulnerable with their colleagues and start to open conversations in their PLC’s [Professional Learning Communities]/departments.”

As of now, only teachers are able to go through equity training. For students, Johnston’s Portrait of a Learner section on Community and Global Mindedness is the closest step to equity training. The training teachers receive hasn’t necessarily manifested in the classroom yet, and without similar training, the majority of students have no exposure from an outside perspective to the bubble they are in. Throughout our time at the high school, topics of privilege, race, and socioeconomic status are very rarely talked about, if ever. Simply reading the Portrait of a Learner goals listed on the stairwells isn’t enough to address the underlying causes of the idealistic world we live in.

Finding a simple solution to a multifaceted bubble is difficult. To understand every facet of the issue and include as many perspectives as possible, we have to start with one) being introspective and understanding what our privileges are, two) evaluating how our privilege affects our world view and those around us, and three) having direct discourse with our peers. Having candid conversations about the privileges within our school is the first step to recognizing that our bubble exists; solutions will follow after first recognizing the issue.

This is not a call for everyone to be hypersensitive to every remark and every action taken within our Johnston bubble. This is not advocacy for total censorship, nor it is a plea for total political correctness. 

This is a call for us, as students, to reflect on our environment and its resulting privileges to personally grow. As teenagers, we lack certain life experiences and have a limited understanding of the world. The only way to begin rectifying our naiveté is to evaluate how the Johnston bubble impacts us in its norms and traditions that may or may not be beneficial in the long run.