Unfurling a message of acceptance

NASHUA – As the sun rose Monday morning, a group of teenagers stood on the roof of the north campus of Nashua High School ready to deliver a message.

With a heave from those above the brick façade of the school’s B-wing and a tug on a rope from those standing more than 40 feet below, a giant white banner was unfurled.

In huge black letters was a message to all who entered the school that day.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” the banner read. It was a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

Beneath the quote on the banner was a statistic: Every 44 minutes someone is the victim of a hate-related incident.

The message was meant to give people pause. It was intended to make people think. It was also a giant greeting card from a new group of students who are trying to improve the culture of the high school.

The message behind the messages was simple – it’s not cool to hate.

“It’s such a powerful message,” said senior Kim McMahon, a member of the student group Spreading Tolerance And Negating Discrimination, or STAND. “That quote is exactly what we’re about. If you sit there in silence, nothing’s going to change.”

The group currently has about 15 members. Some are front-line crusaders willing to speak up in a crowd. Others are behind-the-scenes activists who are trying to spread acceptance through more anonymous forms of advocacy.Some were drawn to the group because of their religious beliefs; others because they know people who have been the victims of hate. Some students said they were driven by their conscience to get involved.

All want to make Nashua High a better place by expanding the way people around them think.

“So many people are afraid to ask those hard questions,” said McMahon. “We want to be loud. We’re not afraid to take a risk and offend people.”

One thing the group plans to do is use the element of surprise in delivering its messages. They didn’t want to divulge their plans for their next message, but they say it’s going to be a big one – more emotion, more symbolism, more personal relevance, they promised.

They hope everything they do will break people out of their daily routines, if only for a minute, and make them think.

“Something like we did today really catches your attention,” said Elizabeth Charbonneau. “There’s no way you can ignore a 45-foot banner.”

On Monday all members of STAND wore white T-shirts for the day. They said it was a way to give the banner a face. It wasn’t an attempt to get attention. The group isn’t about being popular.

“We’re here to do what little part we can,” said Aaron Chilelli, who organized the group. “We know there are students who are going to shun us. We know there are students who are going to think this is a joke.”

The group is part of a larger effort to improve school culture that has extended to the school’s administration, staff and students. Last year the school paid consultants from New England College to help jump-start a school culture committee that led to a summit between students and teachers at the school.

For several years, school officials have been urging students to utter a simple phrase when they see instances of bullying, harassment or violence. That phrase is “not in our school.”

The members of STAND don’t want to replace those efforts. Instead they want to build on them.

On their first day, their efforts were taking hold.

Junior Daniel Shilov said he didn’t have time to read the banner in the morning when he got to school because his bus was running late. He grew more and more curious throughout the day as he heard people talking about it.

When school was over, he made a point to walk out and read the message.

“I agree with it, first of all,” he said. “I’m glad to see some people already understand this type of stuff.”

To students at school who have felt the brunt of hate, their efforts perhaps will send a message of hope, some members of STAND suggested.

“It’s to let them know they’re not fighting this battle alone,” McMahon said. “We’re there if they need us, and we’re fighting the battle with them.”