Thirty-nine years ago, I was working on my high school yearbook staff, and we were on deadline waiting for a group photo to fill a page. When it finally arrived from the darkroom, I rushed it to a teacher who could identity the students and asked him to return the photo when he was done.
A short time later, the teacher came back steamed. The photo, which I hadn’t bothered to look at, had several students flashing gestures that involved the middle finger. Embarrassed, I apologized to the teacher and found something else to fill the hole.
The yearbook was the Minnewaukan of Baraboo High School. In case you haven’t heard, another photo consisting of a group of Baraboo High School students is causing a stir. Unlike the 1979 photo, which went straight to the trash, this one traveled all over the globe.
As a Baraboo Class of ‘79 graduate, it’s painful to watch my hometown endure worldwide scorn. It’s learning the hard way that, in 2018, there’s no such thing as a local news story anymore. Just ask Baraboo School District superintendent Dr. Lori Mueller, who wrote a letter to parents shortly after the photo went viral. It reads, in part:
“Throughout the day, local, state and national media have been giving this incident a great deal of attention ... Please know that while you and your student have the right to speak to reporters, you also have the right to decline these requests. We want to ensure that our parents, students and staff don’t feel pressured to comment publicly if they do not wish to do so.”
Mueller’s statement comes across as a subtle plea for a community-wide no comment, which is the last thing Baraboo needs. In an age of inescapable, relentless universal scrutiny, Baraboo doesn’t have the luxury of circling the wagons. It needs to explain itself. Fast. And starting with the roughly 50 boys in the photo.
The obvious explanation is that the students were waving, not saluting, and the students with the stiff arms were simply in the middle of their wave. It’s an entirely plausible explanation; note that some students had a bent arm as opposed to a straight arm. Anyone who does the wiper wave will have the arm extended straight outward at some point.
But if that’s the explanation, then why hasn’t every single student in the photo said so? It’s beyond comprehension why they aren’t jumping out of their skin to deny any “Heil Hitler” intent. As I write this, one student in the photo has publicly addressed the issue.
One down, 49 to go.
Meanwhile, as the wagons circle, the narrative takes root of another narrow-minded Trumpublican rural community dropping its pants. Irony alert: the Trump part doesn’t apply to Baraboo. As a conservative columnist was bound to point out, the city of Baraboo went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by double digits and backed every statewide Democrat running in 2018. No matter. Comments like “Parts of Wisconsin are like Alabama North. Only scattered blue islands of sanity” are “Being from Wisconsin, I can tell you this totally squares with what I know about Baraboo and rural Wisconsin in general ... It’s why we ended up with Scott Walker for 8 long years” are staples of liberal weblogs.
I was lucky that an alert teacher 39 years ago kept an offensive photo from our yearbook. Even had the photo slipped through and been published, there would have been embarrassment, but the story wouldn’t have spread past Wisconsin Dells or Madison. But it’s no longer 1979. When a community steps in it, the whole world finds out. Baraboo can’t stay silent. Thanks to the internet, it has nowhere to hide.
Steve Rundio is the editor of the Tomah Journal.