As a 1990 graduate of Brainerd High School, and as a 2007 graduate of a doctoral program in education at the University of Minnesota — where Timothy Lensmire was my adviser — I have followed the recent controversy over his appearance before Brainerd High School’s faculty with some interest.
Some have tried to downplay the disagreement over Lensmire’s scheduled appearance before BHS teachers. For example, in a May 26 article in the Dispatch, board member Black Lance is quoted as saying that no mistakes were made in the process that led up to the cancelation of Lensmire’s talk. And while I agree with Black Lance’s assessment of the situation — it is indeed perfectly fine for folks in Brainerd to change their minds about a speaker or to disagree about the best ways to achieve racial justice — I also feel that a wonderful opportunity has been missed.
Tim Lensmire is not an ideologue who is trying to force critical race theory upon the faculty of Brainerd High School (who are, in any case, perfectly capable of thinking for themselves about these issues). Rather, Tim is a kind and open-hearted person with an amazing sense of humor. That is, he is something of a rarity in these days of hyperbolic partisan vitriol.
Tim is a rarity in another way. He is an academic who was born in rural Wisconsin (the son of a cheesemaker), who was educated at a regional state university in Wisconsin, and who wrote a book about White racial identity in the Wisconsin town where he was born and raised.
And this book is not what you might expect. There are no villains here. Rather, the book is marked by sensitive and humanizing portrayals of White folks struggling to make sense of the massive racial injustices that are part and parcel of American life.
Tim brings to this book the same skills he brings to his teaching — his profound respect for others, demonstrated through his willingness to listen deeply. And his sense of humor. (His laughter is infectious — just ask anyone who has spent any time with him. They can tell you.)
I don’t know exactly what Tim would have done with BHS’s teachers. But here are some guesses, based on years of working with him. He would have started by asking teachers to think about their own life stories. He might have asked them to think about their childhoods — about the first time that they understood that they were White (or Black or Native). He might have asked them to share those stories with a trusted colleague, and to reflect on what these life experiences might mean for them as teachers (and citizens and family members).
Tim would not have lectured these teachers about their racism. He would not have told them they are the problem. He would not have told them that they are the reason that some kids are struggling in Brainerd’s school. He would have invited story, listening, and sharing. These are the types of events that are needed all over this country as we come to terms with the tragic history of race relations in the United States.
Not just Brainerd High School, but the entire lakes area, should reconsider the chance to learn alongside Tim Lensmire.