The summer before my sophomore year of high school at the International School of the Americas on the campus of Robert E. Lee High School, I traveled in a large van with an older family friend to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I spent a couple of months on an adventure living in her lifelong friends’ antebellum mansion, falling in love with the Deep South. I fell in love with its traditions, battlefields, food, and most of all, its people.
My memory of our visit to the Vicksburg National Military Park is as hazy as the weather on that humid morning, but after being entranced by the stories of Civil War battles for a full day, I remember buying souvenir flags on sticks, proud of my newfound knowledge about the difference between the Stars and Bars and the Confederate Naval Battle Flag.
The next fall, as San Antonio high school students so often do, I began to regularly attend our weekly football games with my friends. Rambunctious fans who wanted to be heard, we were proud of our school and our team. A few weeks into the season, I stitched my souvenir battle flag – formerly the Lee High School flag as well – onto the back of a white T-shirt and scribbled something about the “rebels” around it before proudly wearing it to school for game day.
Shari Albright, then the director of ISA, spotted me in the hall and stopped me for a quick chat. She reminded me that the school had changed its flag a few years before (something I wasn’t aware of at the time) for a good reason; the Confederate Naval Battle Flag made many students deeply uncomfortable.
Although she acknowledged my right to have it, Albright asked me to understand how proudly wearing the flag might impact those around me. My 17-year-old ears listened the best they could, but I continued to wear the shirt throughout the day and to the game that night. I never wore it again, but I now look back on that decision and can’t help but wonder which of my friends felt alienated from me that day. Worse, I wonder if any of them felt shame or even fear because of the choice that I made to celebrate my school pride and heritage.
Fifteen years later, I still understand the deep connection to and pride for Southern values and heritage. As a proud Lee alumnus, I love and respect my high school alma mater and its traditions. But, importantly, I also understand and greatly respect the brave students who had asked that we consider changing the school’s name so that all students feel welcome and safe on campus. I am not going to weigh the merits of a name change here, mostly because that issue has already been settled. It’s time to figure out how we all move on and teach the current students of Lee High School the most important values that we all share.
As we consider how to move forward as a community, I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite books, one I read as a young pupil in North East Independent School District: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” A woman named Harper Lee wrote that in her 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird.
As I was toying with ideas for new names for the school I love that would make us all proud, Lee’s voice, dripping with Southern grace and twang, came through to me subtly at first, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Why wouldn’t we honor the voice of this late southern hero, who teaches justice and compassion and just so happens to have the same last name as the previous namesake of this institution? Harper Lee’s name might provide the perfect solution to many of the challenges I have heard around the renaming process.
First, the school would still be called Lee High School. The Lee-Churchill football and soccer rivalries will remain intact. Alumni and current students will all be connected to the name Lee. Most of the athletic uniforms, many of the signs and even the logo can remain exactly as they are – the bold red letter “L” surrounded by stars that we have all come to know and love over the past few decades. These practical conveniences will mitigate substantially the cost associated with a name change. Most importantly, we will have chosen to brand ourselves with the name of a woman whose courageous voice taught us all as young people the basics of human empathy and dignity.
And as for a mascot, Lee wrote in her recently released novel, Go Set a Watchman, about the narrator’s father Atticus as a righteous advocate and watchman, something of a moral compass for the make-believe town of Maycomb, Alabama. Is there a better vision for what we hope the young people who walk the halls of Lee High School will become?
I propose, then, that as we consider all of the options for a name change, that we consider the Harper Lee Watchmen. We will be celebrating the very best of Southern values like hospitality, compassion, justice, and fairness. And that might even be better than a Lee High School state football championship.