Dear Sen. Ben Sasse,
A few years ago, I was with a group of high school seniors on a trip to Washington D.C., when on a sunny afternoon, you spoke with us on the back steps of the Capitol building. Not long after you departed, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis joined our party and also spoke to our students.
That night at dinner, I vividly recall chatting with some of our best and brightest about what an honor it was that you and Rep. Lewis had made time for us that day.
Rep. Lewis has a decades-long track record of bipartisan leadership and standing up for what is right and good, for representing Georgians and all Americans with dignity. When I introduced students to a freshman senator from Nebraska before a national monument dedicated to American values, I held high hopes that you might continue this proud tradition.
In your commencement address to the graduating class of 2020 at Fremont High School, you made it clear that my hopes were misplaced. You mocked the field of psychology and all of those who seek help from psychologists, you repeatedly made racist, politically motivated remarks, you ridiculed the struggle of students I have witnessed fighting like hell to navigate these uncharted waters and you demeaned the very profession of teaching — all of this in a moment intended to honor our public schools and the accomplishments of our students.
It’s remarkable that you fit all of this, and so many other ill-considered remarks, into such a short address.
It saddens me that I have to say this, Senator, but your actions do not represent the good people of the great state of Nebraska. For more than 150 years, Nebraskans have strived to live up to our state motto: “Equality before the law.”
While we have certainly stumbled at times to honor that commitment, more often we have been a beacon of hope and an example of leadership to the nation.
Rep. Lewis and I discussed that Nebraska was the first state to divest from South Africa, helping bring an end to apartheid. Nebraskans know right from wrong, Senator, and we act upon it. We don’t mock public servants, we don’t demean mental health professionals and we don’t blame other people – or countries – for our problems or unwillingness to solve them.
Your words don’t reflect who we are, and this, in turn, makes me wonder if you aren’t a Nebraskan in name only.
While the decision to share your remarks might call into question the judgment of administrators in Fremont, it is your personal judgment I find most troubling, as the decisions you make are destined to have the greatest impact on a nation embroiled in the midst of a global crisis. Your brand of racist vitriol is not what Nebraskans stand for, and your commencement address to the class of 2020 fell far short of what our graduating seniors – young men and women staring into the eye of a hurricane and making it blink -- deserve.
Since you did such an exceedingly poor job of it, I’d like to conclude by addressing the class of 2020, a class that surely includes any number of Jeremys, aspiring psychology majors, future teachers, students of Chinese descent and most of all, people who love and care deeply for their classmates regardless of their name, educational goals or race.
So, to the class of 2020 in the great state of Nebraska: Nobody has ever done what you just did, and while I know that you had a front-row seat to the setbacks and shortcomings, please know you performed admirably and that many of us are proud of you.
Please know, also, that you do not have to accept the representation of people whose values fall short of your own. Human decency is a staple amongst Nebraskans, and I have never witnessed a generation that cared more about other people than you do.
You have the intellect, the empathy, the hearts and the minds we need to solve problems like the ones we face today, and in advance I’d like to thank each of you for the part you will play in repairing this fractured, sickened world.
You will accomplish this, and you will go on to do so much more. As you move forward, please know that your teachers will always support you, even when your elected representatives fail to do so. We are counting on you, and I know you will not let us down.
Born and raised in Valentine and a graduate of UNL, Mark Gudgel is a 16-year veteran of public school education and a professor of education at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where he is teaching a course in psychology this summer.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.