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Paul Tenkotte: There’s always an opportunity to be better than we are — a lesson from DC experience

Years ago, a friend listened patiently as I droned on about how I was so angry that a certain issue was being ignored. Finally, she asked me a pointed question, “What’s your end game?” “What?” I responded rather shocked and somewhat annoyed. “What are you hoping to accomplish?” she rephrased the question. It stopped me in my tracks. “Your anger,” she suggested, “is getting in the way of your ability to articulate and to accomplish your tasks.”

I will never forget that advice.

Ever since my friend called out my behavior, whenever I feel anger and unfounded hatred washing over me, I stop to ask, “What’s the end game here?”

Rather surprisingly, I calm down, churn over the situation rationally, and determine a plan of action. But I do so slowly and patiently, not quickly. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in life were the results of rash decisions.

Paul Tenkotte

Either I can contribute to a solution, or I cannot. Either I can help defuse a situation or I cannot. If I cannot, or if my proposed solution is readily rejected, I become sad, not angry—sad that I and people I care about have possibly missed an opportunity.

As an historian, I am convinced more and more with each passing year that human beings bring many, if not most, of their sorrows upon themselves. We make mistakes and refuse to learn from them. We don’t examine alternative perspectives that question our own biases. We reject change because we can’t predict the future. We oppose others because we think that they are our enemies. We hate others because we misunderstand them.

On Friday, January 18, students from my alma mater, Covington Catholic High School (CCH) in Park Hills, were attending the annual national March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Mobile phone videos captured some of them in an unfortunate exchange with Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha tribe and a Vietnam veteran. Nationally, videos of the event went viral over the internet, and before long, millions of people had viewed them and had formulated their own opinions.

I began reading the comments posted on the web, many of them full of venomous hatred. People were even suggesting crazy, illegal, and immoral things. How very sad. What is the end game here? How will stacking hatred in layer upon layer solve anything? How does anyone learn from that?

Whether you choose to believe it or not, from 1925 on, Covington Catholic High School has striven to teach social justice. The priests and brothers of the Society of Mary (Marianists) of Dayton, Ohio, who operated the school until 1978, always stressed to us the importance of becoming “responsible men,” of serving our communities and of loving others.

Covington Catholic has graduated thousands of men who have dedicated their lives to their communities—professors, teachers, physicians, surgeons, dentists, pharmacists, scientists, engineers, lawyers, businessmen, Catholic priests and brothers, government and nonprofit leaders, artists, musicians, athletes, and veterans of the armed forces. We are your neighbors and your friends, many of us with deep and steadfast commitments in fighting for the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, or politics.

I will never forget the Marianists’ call for us, as men, to respect the dignity of all people. We were taught the words of John 4:16: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” And so I am not angry, just very sad.

I’m sad that hatred and racism still haunt our nation. I’m dejected that we too often blaspheme God by disrespecting others who are no different than we are. I’m disappointed that we don’t spend enough energy trying to change our world for the better. And I’m sad that we don’t really talk to one another anymore, but instead spend way too much time scouring the internet and savagely attacking one another for disagreeing with us. Energetic but respectful debate is healthy. It built our democracy; lack of healthy debate threatens it.

But there is a priceless teaching opportunity here, and I hope that my alma mater doesn’t miss it.

It’s a learning opportunity for all of us, students and adults. None of us are off the hook in our responsibilities to teach one another. So, Covington Catholic, please take this opportunity to reach out into the larger community, deeper and wider than you’ve ever done before. Make social justice and Christian love the very heart and soul of what you do every minute of each day. Many talented alumni are willing to help you.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is an author, editor, and award-winning Professor of History. He also serves as editor of NKy Tribune’s weekly “Our Rich History” series.

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Here are some sample videos — check internet for others.

An early video — confrontation with Nathan Phillips.

Another video of the incident with the Native Americans.

Another video re the student crowd

The long (nearly 2 hours) video that shows confrontation with Black activists.

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  1. Don Brockmeier says:

    Words of great wisdom. Thank you, Dr. Paul.

  2. Rick Hamel says:

    Paul – The teaching Moment is “the devil is in the liberal left Media” They control any which way they want to spin it. Numerous folks fell for this hook, line & sinker!

  3. Hey Rick! Is that really all you saw – the devil in the so called Liberal Media? What about the devil in the Conservative media as well that promotes class, social and racial division? Want examples? Just look at what Fox is doing to Latinos and immigrants. Your response to this and your demonizing the media with which you disagree is a sterling example of how well they have succeeded in dividing people.

  4. Christopher Burns says:

    Paul your experience and wisdom are words to live by. In the Cincinnati Suburb of Montgomery, we started a Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year to become proactive instead of reactive. The goal of course is to reduce these types of incidents from happening by standing together as one people and celebration our commonalities. We have a very diverse group learning about all types of bias and prejudice so that we can combat them when they arise. It has been educational and humbling to understand all these differences but also exhilarating to know we stand together as a city to fight injustices.
    Thanks for your insight.
    Chris Burns

  5. Robert Scroggins says:

    Great words Dr. Tenkotte, Unfortunately, somehow, this world has become so self centered and offended by everything and everyone that no one can ever know the truth. from selected media sound bites to misguided words from people far removed from any incident but have access to a microphone. As the days have passed, we have learned much more about the incident and even the fact that Mr. Phillips was not a Vietnam veteran, instead he was AWOL numerous times in the Marine Corps and was discharged after 4 years still a private. Those who were not on site will never know all that transpired. What all of us need is understanding, truth, and love for one another. Accept ourselves as we are. No need to say we are something we are not. I feel bad for all involved in this situation and hope that it can be resolved quickly. “”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34 NIV

  6. Mark Kluemper says:

    Paul, your response to an incident that has triggered so much emotion is a great example of someone allowing the initial emotions and urges to pass, and then constructing a thoughtful and meaningful response. Thank you. Today, the opposite is so often true. We have the means to instantly respond, and often a response like that is with too little information, and too much venom. It is my hope that many will read and take your words to heart. Sincerely, a fellow CCH grad, and St. James resident.

  7. Paul Tenkotte says:

    Thank you all for your comments. And good to hear from my former neighbor growing up, Mark Kluemper!

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