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Griffin Gaffney says his plea is fueled by his own painful experiences as a student in Lake Oswego


GAFFNEYA 2009 Lake Oswego High School graduate is circulating an online petition in support of long-lasting changes to the way his alma mater responds to diversity issues.

Griffin Gaffney, who now lives in London, says the Lake Oswego School District is not solely responsible for creating change in a community where students don't see a lot of diversity, because children learn so many of their lessons — good and bad — at home from their parents.

But he says he sees hope for change at LOHS, and as of Jan. 9, he had gotten at least 140 current or former students, parents, teachers and administrators to sign his petition.

"What will continue to be a challenge for a community like Lake Oswego, given the lack of diversity, is how to shock kids into realizing that their perspective isn't the only one," Gaffney told The Review.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2015, 88.9 percent of Lake Oswego's estimated 37,628 people are white. Another 6.7 percent are Asian, 3.8 percent are Hispanic and 0.4 percent are African-American. A 2012 survey by the media outlet Slate indicates that 4.9 percent of Oregon's population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — the fourth-highest percentage in the nation, but still a minority population.

Given those numbers, Gaffney's petition asks the district to push the issue of inclusivity to the forefront. He has also reached out directly to LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck and LOHS Principal Rollin Dickinson, explaining his motivation in a letter that outlines the ridicule and ostracism he experienced while growing up gay in the community.

"In high school, I was called a faggot behind my back," Gaffney wrote in the letter.

But he also said that because of the excellent classes, teachers and staff at his school, he found the opportunities he needed to excel, performing with his viola on National Public Radio and gaining admission to Harvard, where he received a bachelor's in social studies and wrote an honors thesis.

Still, Gaffney said he suffered such stark anxiety while coming out to his classmates in college that he ended up being hospitalized.

"I appreciate the Lake Oswego School District for all it provided me — a great education, excellent teachers, countless extracurricular opportunities," he wrote to Beck and Dickinson. "I owe you and the district ample thanks. Yet I learned in that hospital room and in years of subsequent therapy that I carry deep scars from a community that chose to accept me for my achievements and not for who I am."

Dickinson wrote Gaffney back on behalf of the school and the district, saying that fostering an environment filled with kindness and acceptance is the antidote to intolerance. He also shared some steps LOHS is taking to address the problem, including an in-depth, small-group discussion series for all students in a class called Laker Seminars.

"I also believe that each smile spreads; each sincere conversation, each gesture of warmth and connection, lasts," Dickinson wrote to Gaffney. "In this way, though we are more than the sum of these moments, these moments remain part of us and become part of the communities we create."

Taking action

Gaffney now works on the business team at Stripe, an international company that created technology that affords private individuals and businesses the ability to accept payments online. But he said he hasn't forgotten where he came from. He said he wants the district and his school to strive to make a difference and to continue to take action — especially in response to recent discriminatory incidents.

On Oct. 11, an "anti-Semitic" picture was posted in the LOHS cafeteria; on Nov. 2, a racist comment about violence against African-Americans appeared on a Facebook page run by LOHS students. The district responded swiftly, with letters from Beck and Dickinson to the community condemning the acts.

In addition, Dickinson encouraged the school newspaper, Lake Views, to write a piece on the history of racial discrimination at the school. He also arranged for a Nov. 16 assembly featuring Jeannie Smith, the daughter of World War II heroine Irene Gut Opdyke, who hid 12 Jewish people in a cellar in Germany. Smith's presentation featured discussions afterward in classrooms.

Students have founded a Diversity Council, which met for the first time Nov. 17, and "will lead conversations and events throughout the year," Dickinson said. LOHS Link Crew leaders (upperclassmen who welcome new students) are establishing a student magazine that "will provide a venue for more student voices and creative approaches to these issues," he added.

Melissa Lowery, who grew up in West Linn, led LOHS staff in a discussion in late November about her documentary "Black Girl in Suburbia," in which African-American girls share stories about living in a mostly white culture. Staff also are being trained in the area of discrimination during professional development sessions.

Gaffney said in his letter that he is excited to hear about these changes, but that he and his supporters are watching closely to make sure the district stays on track.SUBMITTED PHOTO - Griffin Gaffney (right) beams with his brother Devin Gaffney (left) and exchange student Eiichiro Sakai when the three were students at Lake Oswego High School.

"It is your duty and imperative to follow through on your now public commitments and to lead by example," he wrote. "I urge you to consider how your promises, if fulfilled, will impact our community not only today, but for many years to come."

What's next?

At the time Gaffney was in school, Bruce Plato was the LOHS principal and Bill Korach served as the superintendent. Gaffney said the administration and teachers were often his only supporters, and that much of the rejection and intolerance he faced came from peers.

The school and district now have new leaders. Beck joined the district as superintendent in 2014, and Dickinson took the helm at LOHS this summer. In his letter to Gaffney, Dickinson said that the name-calling he experienced himself in fifth grade "still shreds through time" and that Gaffney has reminded him of an important truth: "Each moment endures."

"That is the awesome responsibility not just of being an educator but of being alive," Dickinson wrote. "Each moment is a gift. Each moment a gift to be given. How it all keeps going and in that way remains. Everything, everyone matters.

"This is to say that, for all that we have done already and plan to do still, we are proceeding with gentleness, warmth, patience, openness," Dickinson wrote. "I don't know how we truly take care of each other, learn together, or create something worth lasting any other way."

To spread the message of acceptance, Dickinson has created Laker Seminars for all LOHS students on the second Friday of each month. Teachers will facilitate conversations with students and will connect with the district's mission statement of fostering "an inclusive and well-rounded community of critical thinkers."

Topics will vary, Dickinson told The Review, but the next one will focus on the "N" word.

"The discussion of the N-word allows us to discuss pejorative language and race, among other things, and provides us with opportunities to expand our understanding of ourselves, each other, and our world," Dickinson said.

For this Laker Seminar, students created a 15-minute video featuring five current students, a former student and three teachers discussing the N-word's history and appropriation and how it makes people feel in its many iterations and arenas.

"I filmed it while interviewing our students and teachers," Dickinson said. "The students and teachers are so thoughtful, so articulate. It's a privilege to hear their perspectives."

Gaffney told The Review that he hopes those acts will be what's needed to create the change he longs to see at LOHS.

"You need to make clear when you're within the walls of the school district that there is a zero-tolerance policy, and there will be major repercussions for something even remotely intolerant," he said, adding that such change will only be possible if local parents are willing to support it.


By Jillian Daley
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IN THEIR OWN WORDS

To see Gaffney's online petition, go to tinyurl.com/GriffinGaffneypetition.

Here is Griffin Gaffney's letter:

Principal Dickinson and Superintendent Beck,

As an alum of the Lake Oswego School District, I am acutely aware of the community's intense conformity.

I vividly remember my fifth grade classmate mocking me for being overweight in front of my class. That day I went home and told my parents I'd rather kill myself than go to school again. In high school I was called a faggot behind my back. I witnessed my mom in awe after our next door neighbor said she was "ruining" her children's lives for choosing her career over staying at home.

Despite clear disadvantages, I wanted to prove that I could fit in. I pushed myself to excel, thinking that by achieving more I would be teased less. I started playing viola in the district strings program when I was 10. By the time I was 17 I was performing on National Public Radio. I raised thousands of dollars and built after-school music programs for underserved youth. I lost seventy pounds and ran seven marathons. I slept a handful of hours every night to earn top grades. Eventually I got into Harvard, something I thought would be the pinnacle of convention.

But in my second year at Harvard I began coming out as gay. During the process I agonized over how and when to tell my classmates. I worried about how they'd react and deeply feared that they, like my peers in Lake Oswego, would ostracize me for who I am.

One cold January day that year I found myself hyperventilating in a dark, windowless hospital room. I'd spent three days without sleeping as I endlessly panicked about how to tell my college roommates that I'm gay, doubting myself as much as my peers in Lake Oswego doubted me. On the fourth day my worried parents made me call emergency services. Within hours I was rushed to the hospital and minutes after medicated on sedative drugs so I could finally calm down.

I appreciate the Lake Oswego School District for all it provided me?—?a great education, excellent teachers, countless extracurricular opportunities. I owe you and the district ample thanks. Yet I learned in that hospital room and in years of subsequent therapy that I carry deep scars from a community that chose to accept me for my achievements and not for who I am.

I often wonder how many other Lake Oswego School District alums share experiences like mine; experiences where they also felt no other option but to deeply suppress who they are as a method for surviving the community's oppressive homogeneity. Experiences where they too lost trust in their peers and spent years having to learn, or are yet to learn, to break cycles of self-doubt and hate they developed in Lake Oswego.

For this reason, contrary to your and Superintendent Beck's recent public words, it actually comes as no surprise that in the past weeks racially motivated, hateful incidents have arisen in the district. I still have the faces of my own peers who shamed me imprinted in my mind.

I am excited to hear that you and Superintendent Beck have discussed rolling out diversity trainings, student discussions, and other initiatives to address this problem. But what I want to make clear is that your words do not fall upon unlistening ears. For every journey like mine in the Lake Oswego School District there are dozens of others more severe and urgent. It is your duty and imperative to follow through on your now public commitments and to lead by example.

I urge you to consider how your promises, if fulfilled, will impact our community not only today, but for many years to come. Importantly, I hope you understand my conviction that continuing to act "surprised" only continues to condone our hate and erase experiences like mine.

I have circulated this letter with the undersigned who share my sentiment and pressing concern for the changes you are rolling out. We are closely watching and look forward to following your progress.

Here is Rollin Dickinson's letter in response to Griffin Gaffney's letter:

In response to your letter, Dr. Beck and I were asked this question (by The Review): How do you make long-lasting changes that promote a school culture that welcomes diversity?

Your letter reminds me of an important truth: Each moment endures. Even so many years later, after college, after so many other profound life experiences, that day in fifth grade remains, that word "faggot" still shreds through time. The judgment. The pain. The self-doubt. What is suppressed to survive. It's all still there, even after it has been left behind or built upon or forgiven. I trust that it is there, too, and maybe sears in a different way the people who said those words in those unbidden ways.

Yet, I also believe that each smile spreads; each sincere conversation, each gesture of warmth and connection, lasts. In this way, though we are more than the sum of these moments, these moments remain part of us and become part of the communities we create.

That is the awesome responsibility not just of being an educator but of being alive. Each moment is a gift. Each moment a gift to be given. How it all keeps going and in that way remains. Everything, everyone matters.

This is to say that, for all that we have done already and plan to do still, we are proceeding with gentleness, warmth, patience, openness. I don't know how we truly take care of each other, learn together, or create something worth lasting any other way. 

I so appreciate how you have reached back to help us along the way. If you are ever in town or would like to speak over the phone, please be in touch.

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