In black letters on a blue poster board, a question beckons from a wall at Duke Ellington School of the Arts: “Why is it hard for you to take responsibility for your mistakes?”
The confessions come in short scribbled sentences:
“I don’t want to be looked down on.”
“Cause lying is easy.”
“Because no one wants to accept their faults.”
“It makes me feel like a failure and I hate that feeling.”
“Because people judge.”
Students in the school’s theater department have been working hard, preparing for a production that runs Thursday through Saturday of “The Laramie Project.” The play focuses on the aftermath of the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.
But that’s not all the students have been doing. They have also created a campaign — which the poster board is part of — that aims at fighting hate crimes and empowering their peers who face discrimination.
It’s called “Own It.”
When a 16-year-old student at the school emailed me to ask if I could write about the production and the campaign, I started to email him back and politely explain that I don’t cover school plays. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. I’m just not in a position to critique them. My brief brush with drama ended at 13, when I tried out for a show on Nickelodeon and laughed while delivering the test line, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
But then I started to think about that phrase — own it — and all that is crammed into those two words.
Those are the two words we most want our politicians and leaders to say when they mess up. We don’t want them to apologize that their actions have left us feeling upset or betrayed, which puts the burden on us. We want them to take responsibility for the harm they have caused. We want them to own it.
In another usage, those two words capture all our insecurities and allow us a choice. We can feel ashamed of the things others might judge us for, or we can own them. We can own our skin color and our body shapes and our love of bad TV. We can own our disabilities and our quirks and our privileges.
It is encouraging that high school students are having these conversations, especially because they are growing up at a time when hate runs through their lives in so many forms. Their generation has experienced regular school shootings, witnessed prominent displays of white nationalism and watched adults fight over bathroom use for the transgender community. Bullying has also contributed to a rise in the rate of suicides among young people.
I wrote the 16-year-old back and said I wanted to know more about the campaign. I asked if he and some of the other students involved in the production would be willing to think about that phrase and share, in their own words, what it meant to them.
A couple days later, he sent me their answers. Here are a few:
“To me, that phrase is about destroying the distance we create between us and our imperfections,” Junior Karma Price wrote. “As human beings, we love to claim all the good. However, as human beings, we aren’t just good. We’re good, we’re bad, we’re confused, we’re trying, we’re growing, we’re messing up, and we’re learning. We can’t distance ourselves from the bad or imperfect things and hope that they’ll go away if we don’t acknowledge them. We have to embrace them. It’s our imperfections that make us, us; and we need to own it.”
“What Own It means to me is the power, courage and integrity to take responsibility of your own actions,” sophomore Erik Ventura wrote. “Also owning yourself and being able to own who you are and your heritage and be proud of it. I own who I am as a child of immigrants and being latino in America.”
“Own It reminds me that because of my place in society and American culture, I am not challenged and singled out as different or not accepted for being who I am, so therefore I must stick up for my loved ones and peers who are victims of hate,” wrote sophomore Quincy Corsello, the student who originally contacted me. “I believe that as long as people who are in a similar position to me are not bystanders, we can provide a better and safer future for people who belong to the LGBTQIA+ community and other minorities alike.”
Earlier this week, I sat down with those teenagers and a few more cast and crew members at the school. Several said that before they read the play, they didn’t know who Shepard was or that he was found beaten and tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo. But the students recently visited Washington National Cathedral, where Shepard is interred, and they said they have since thought a lot about what his death says about hate and the actions we choose, or don’t choose, to take.
They have also thought about their own lives and what they have already come to own.
“I would like to think I’m not prejudiced, but there are small things and judgments I make about people,” 16-year-old junior Talli Basile said.
Senior Jada Gainer said she has spent the last few years coming to terms with her sexuality and now accepts, “I’m a queer black woman in America, and I’m awesome for that.”
As I left the school that day, I passed another blue poster board with a different question on it.
This one asked: “What mistakes do you struggle to own up to?”