I have been thinking about the oddly timed episodes of cheering/booing at the past three Republican debates, and perhaps I am most incredulous about the latest episode. Get this: a crowd of GOP booed a member of the military who asked a question via video, because he was gay. That service member is currently serving in Iraq. I really want to put that last sentence in all caps. But it helped me remember something from my high school days.
This was back in the mid-80s, at Episcopal High School, in Houston, Texas; I was either a freshman or sophomore, because Mr. Barr was still teaching, and he figures prominently in this story. Mr. Barr was a history teacher at the school, and among other duties, he was the faculty rep for the Model United Nations (we were Colombia).
We had a congressman from the U.S. House of Representatives come to the school and speak. I can’t remember which one, or if he was actually the congressman for this particular district. However, I do remember that he represented Texas. I can’t remember what he was there to speak about either, maybe just a general sort of “this is what I do as your representative” type of speech.
After the member of Congress spoke, they started taking questions. Mr. Barr went up to the microphone. I cannot remember if his question had anything to do with the speaker’s topic or not, but it had to do with immigration, of the illegal variety. Nor can I remember the entirety of Mr. Barr’s question, except to say that Mr. Barr was not happy. Essentially Mr. Barr wanted to know what those yahoos in Washington were going to do about the large numbers of immigrants illegally crossing the Rio Grande River and “invading” Texas. I believe that Mr. Barr actually likened the size of the immigrant “army” to being several times larger than Santa Anna’s “invading” army of 1836, called them “Mexican wetbacks”, and by that point he was shouting.*
Like I said, I don’t remember too many particulars, what I just wrote pretty much sums up what I remember about the actual question. However, I do remember that after he finished his question, there was a great deal of cheering, clapping, and maybe laughter. (To this day, I use the words “great deal” instead of “a lot” out of reverence for the next person mentioned in this story.)
Mrs. Corbett was an English teacher at the school, and although I knew she was born in Germany, I didn’t know much else beyond that. She was the next person to go to the microphone. She didn’t really have a question, more of a response to Mr. Barr (which was good, because I think the congressman was kind of speechless at that point). She spoke about being an immigrant, and how she and her family had fled East Germany and if it had not been for Harry S. Truman (and I think his support for the Displaced Persons Act), they might have never been able to make it out of a still destroyed Germany and into the United States which allowed them to have a much better life than what they could have had in a Germany that was still recovering from the war. When she finished, she was on the verge of tears (if not already crying), and the auditorium was dead silent.
Having written the above, there are a number of routes I could take before I finish (why did we cheer, immigration and associated policy in the 80s, Anglo/Hispanic relations in Texas in the 80s, among others), but I think I want to write about the cheering. As I said, I was a freshman or a sophomore. Because of the unique way they were growing the school, we did not have a senior class yet, and if I was a freshman, we didn’t even have a junior class yet, only freshmen and sophomores. So the age range of the majority of those in the auditorium was 14-17. We were kids, and not even old enough to vote. But apparently we cheered this guy. I have to be honest; I was probably one of the ones cheering, most of us were. But I was also regretting my cheering after Mrs. Corbett finished speaking.
I am not sure what happened immediately after that, we may have had more questions or they may have dismissed us at that point to prevent any further embarrassment. Regardless, later that day, or the next, Mr. Barr got fired, was “asked to leave”, or resigned. What people (including myself) found out later was that Mr. Barr wasn’t exactly a loveable curmudgeon given to bombast in class to help illustrate a point of history, but apparently (possibly?) a racist, or at least a xenophobe. Turns out there were other instances and complaints about his behavior towards, and questionable treatment of, people of color. His actions in the assembly were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mr. Barr was angry, and he apparently asked questions that some people wanted to ask but he asked in an inappropriate way. And he was cheered on by a crowd largely made up of minors. I like to think that most of us immediately reconsidered or regretted our cheering, or at least were regretting our cheer by the time Mrs. Corbett had spoken. However, we still cheered. The defense I would use is that we were kids, and we may have been cheering (and laughing maybe) Mr. Barr’s bombastic way of questioning more than the content of the question. I like to think that most of us would eventually grow out of it and wouldn’t get as blindly caught up as we did in Mr. Barr’s fervor. Regardless, we cheered, clapped and probably laughed.
So in retrospect, I would expect to hear such cheering or booing as was heard at the Republican debates. Only the audience would be a group of high school students who aren’t mature enough to know better and who still need to be reminded of decorum and decency. Not a crowd of supposedly mature adults.
As always, I welcome all responses, but this time especially if you are EHS class of ’87, ’88, or ’89, because I’d be interested in hearing your memories of this event (or any event at EHS that stands out in your memory).
*For a little historical perspective, it should be noted that contrary to the beliefs of many critics at the time, the illegal immigrants coming across the border could have been refugees from any number of Central American countries fleeing wars, death squads or bad economic conditions that were happening in the 80s.