It’s not often that an ordinary person who made extraordinary history can visit a classroom and enlighten students about the details and downfalls of what they went through to make history.
However, that was just the case when Mary Beth Tinker visited Chelsea High School (CHS) last Wednesday afternoon.
“I think the students had a great time with Mary Beth, and as a history teacher it was dream situation for them to learn details about the Constitution and talk to a person who made history regarding the Constitution,” said CHS History Teacher Ilana Ascher. “This is a person who 30 years later is still involved in making change. The students learned that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. You don’t have to be elected to a political office. She was a great role model for our kids and it’s something that will definitely stay with them.”
The Tinker Case – as it has come to be known – was a groundbreaking decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 and it rewrote the rules for the First Amendment rights of students in public schools. It also gave birth to the Tinker Test, which is still used by administrators across the country as a measuring stick for what is and is not allowed.
The case began in December 1965 when about two dozen students of all ages in Des Moines, IA agreed to wear black armbands with peace signs to school to support a truce in the Vietnam War. School officials there found out about it prior to the action, and agreed to suspend students wearing the armbands.
On Dec. 16, 1965, many students wore the armbands, but Tinker, her brother, another male student and two others were singled out for suspension. The case took a wild and difficult ride through the courts, but by February 1969, the Supreme Court came down with its groundbreaking decision in favor of the Tinkers, thus changing the rights of public school students from then on.
It didn’t come without a cost though, as the family had numerous death threats and harassing phone calls. Once, someone even stopped at their house and threw several cans of red paint all over it. After the case, they were pressured to move away from Iowa.
Ascher said the visit was very much about good timing.
Last spring, students in her Advanced Placement History class were embarking on a research paper and video project. The young people wanted to research court cases that had to do with teen-agers, and so that led them to the Tinker Case. As fate would have it, they found an e-mail for Tinker and contacted her.
“The students were pleasantly surprised when she e-mailed them back and was willing to answer their questions and be part of their project,” said Ascher. “They asked her several questions and she responded. This fall, she announced that she was taking a nationwide tour to promote student activism. Due to last spring’s project, she contacted us and asked if the tour could come to Chelsea High. We were thrilled.”
Ascher said for students to meet someone who changed the course of the country – and helped give them rights in school – was quite a unique experience.
“I think what they got out of it was that at any age you can make a difference,” said Ascher. “They heard it’s important to fight for your rights and that you have rights no matter what age you are…It was a pretty cool message, especially coming from someone who as a teen was able to make a big change in the country.”