By ALICIA PETSKA
The News Virginian
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rachel Gordon didn’t understand why she was in trouble.

“Are you trying to get sent to the principal’s office to make a statement?” asked the teacher who pulled her into the hallway.

“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” said Rachel, a senior at Waynesboro High School. “… I never get yelled out. I never get sent out of class.”

Rachel, 17, hadn’t seen the Friday morning paper. She had no idea another Waynesboro student, junior Steven McDonaldson, was taking a stand against the school’s no Confederate flags policy. And so it never occurred to her that anyone would take issue with the oversized battle flag belt buckle she was wearing. Or her “Cowgirl Up” sweatshirt, which depicts a woman astride a horse, the Confederate flag billowing in the background.

“Everybody does it,” she said of flag-stamped clothing. “It’s a Southern school. Usually, I wear cowboy boots.”

Rachel, whose ancestors fought in the Civil War, added she frequently wears the image of the Confederate flag and has never had a problem at school before. “The way

[my teacher] confronted me, she seemed to be just assuming I was supporting [Steven].”

Her teacher told her the shirt and buckle were offensive, and she’d have to take them off. Rachel, a shy girl who says she doesn’t like confrontation, complied – underneath the sweatshirt she was wearing a NASCAR T-shirt bearing the American flag.

Later that day, she text messaged her parents about what had happened.

“I said [to my husband] either you’re going to call the school or I am because I am highly ticked off at this minute,” said Rachel’s mother, Letrecia Gordon. “I just think it’s ridiculous. We live in a Southern state and this is a matter of Southern pride. … Men died for our freedom [in the Civil War]. What are we supposed to do? Be ashamed of that?”

The South has had 141 years to decide what the Confederate flag represents in a post-Civil War world, but hasn’t been able to reach a consensus yet. For some, it’s part of a proud heritage. For others, it recalls a past when racism and hatred were an accepted part of life. Gov. Mark Warner – who ended the state’s tradition of having an annual Confederate History Month – once referred to the issue as a lightning rod.

Waynesboro Pastor Allen Crawley said he understood that, to some, the flag is a positive symbol.

“But at the same time, it represents something negative to African Americans,” added the native Southerner, retired schoolteacher, and leader among the local African American community. “… At one point, at the height of integration, it was quite offensive. It was used in a hateful manner to intimidate the blacks. I saw the worst of it.”

The Rev. Crawley felt both sides of the argument needed to recognize how the other feels. “You have to be considerate of other people,” he said. “Then, maybe, we could have a reasonable compromise. You wouldn’t want to do something that causes hurt to others.”

Earlier this week, when 16-year-old Steven McDonaldson was sent to the principal’s office for refusing to turn his Confederate flag-bearing T-shirt inside out, it was explained to him and his mother that, because the shirt might offend other students, it was deemed inappropriate for class.

When Rachel Gordon’s father called Friday to complain about what happened to his daughter, she was told to put her previously banned clothing back on.

“I told [the principal] I didn’t think I should have had to take it off. I wasn’t doing anything,” said Rachel. “She said I wasn’t being a disruption, so I could put it back on. And if anyone said something to me about it, to send them to her.”

School Principal Sue Wright could not be reached in time for this article.

Both Rachel Gordon and Steven McDonaldson say racism and controversy has nothing to do with their desire to wear the flag and note they have close African American friends.

Within the halls of Waynesboro High, incidents like their’s have sparked a debate among the student body. Rachel said students in her choir class talked about the meaning of the flag Friday, with some supporting the heritage viewpoint and others saying it was offensive.

Steven said he received a lot of positive feedback after his resistance to the school policy was written about in The News Virginian.

“A lot of people were happy I was standing up for what I believe in,” he said. “… Some random kids came up to me and said their government class talked about it that day.”

Both teens say they will continue to wear the flag.

“I have no reason not to,” said Rachel.

“I’m not being racist, and you can’t tell me I can’t wear something without giving a valid reason to back it up.”

© 2006 Media General

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