By Vic Bedoian
It started out as a class project. Malachi Suarez, a smart, curious and articulate fourth grader at James K. Polk Elementary, wants to change the name of his school. In doing so, he sparked a broader conversation about history and culture within the Central Unified School District. Although he followed the process and the rules for making his case, Malachi’s project has been thwarted by school officials.
And now the issue has morphed beyond the Polk Elementary campus. The Central Unified board is forming a committee to look at school names and mascots across the entire district.
What the young scholar learned about the nation’s 11th President disgusted him. He learned that Polk was responsible for starting the war with Mexico in 1846 that was strongly opposed by Congress and the general public. The spoils of that war became the future southwestern region of the United States. That war in turn nurtured conditions leading to the Civil War.
He learned that Polk was the political driving force of Manifest Destiny, a policy touted at the time as the God-given right of the United States to occupy and rule the North American landscape from coast to coast, no matter who was already living there.
And he learned that Polk was a slave owner, had slaves in the White House, and even expanded his slave holdings while President.
Armed with this knowledge, Malachi thought it would be a good idea for his school community service project. His plan was to educate students, teachers and administrators alike about the true history of his school’s namesake and change it to something more appropriate.
“I feel like they’re trying to brainwash the kids and keep the truth a secret. So that would be giving the community the truth and then also representing people of color by changing the name.”
Malachi worked for six months preparing a presentation of the case he was making for changing the school’s name. It involved an educational component and an online petition to inform and gather community support.
What was the response from Polk Elementary? The idea was considered “inappropriate and offensive and disruptive” even though Malachi’s project had previously been given the green light. What followed was a convoluted series of actions and missteps by the adults in charge at Polk Elementary.
Gabriel Suarez says school officials were sending his son a set of mixed messages, “He thought that because it involved his school, that he was going to get to present it to his class.
“On the day that he tried to share with his class, his teacher shut it down. And the principal called home almost immediately and told his mom that he was being inappropriate and offensive. So then to clarify it, he was asked to make 10 posters.”
After refusing to allow Malachi’s presentation to his class, or to the students at large, an after-school Zoom session was set up. The school then allowed one poster to be put up in the library just before the session was to take place. Then the situation took a bizarre turn when a parent, who was hostile to the name change idea, tore down the poster, writing an angry letter to school officials opposing the name change or even discussion about it.
The Zoom session turned out to be another misstep. What was promised to be a student-only event for Malachi’s presentation ended up including several unidentified adults and even the parent who tore down the poster. Because of the short notice, only one student participated. Finally, the principal arranged a meeting where Malachi could make his presentation to the student council. He did and the student council voted unanimously in support of the proposal.
The next step was turning to the Central Unified school board for a decision at its July 27 meeting. Malachi made an organized and cogent case with a 10-minute presentation using an essay and graphics for why he thought his school’s name should be changed:
“I believe in freedom, justice, quality and community. These are some of the main principles of America and our school district. I believe that community is when we try to do what is best or better for everyone or most people. I am asking that you rename Polk Elementary because Polk was against these principles.
“Polk believed that one group of people was superior to every other and more deserving. That is called Manifest Destiny. It is the idea that non-European Americans are inferior and do not belong here. Many people like me were killed because of this. Eighty-five percent of our student population would be considered inferior.
“Polk owned slaves and was against ending slavery at the White House. This goes against the American ideal that all people are created equal. Some might say that slavery was acceptable at the time, and we should not judge people based on the principles of someone today. But would you say that to a slave?”
Malachi also made a positive argument for changing the name of his school:
“We can accomplish great things when we see people like ourselves being honored, celebrated. That is why Central Unified should name more schools after people of color.
“I recommend that you rename my school after Maria Moreno. She was the first woman farm laborer to be hired as a union organizer. She was a role model who fought for fair working conditions for diverse groups of people.”
And he provided a history lesson for the school board to contemplate:
“We should not stop at changing the name and mascot at my school. We should also change the Native American mascot at Madison Elementary because being a mascot does not honor Native Americans. Instead, it reinforces the old ideas about Native Americans being savages. We did not even learn about Native American history and the great accomplishments and current contributions to society.”
Finally, Malachi implored the school board to embrace the diversity and history that reflects all Americans:
“At my school, you are choosing to continue honoring Polk and the pioneers and contradicting the principles of America and our school district. Why would you choose that?
“I call on you to do what is right. I call on you to do it now because there’s no reason to wait any longer for the positive change that I’m asking you to make.
“I’ve gathered over a thousand signatures and am supportive of the name change because many people understand that changing the name is the right thing to do. If you do not change the name, you are saying that you celebrate slavery, Native American genocide, killing, stealing land and racist ideas of people like me being inferior and unwelcome. That is why you should vote ‘yes.’”
The Central Unified board declined to vote on changing the name of Polk Elementary but did vote to form a committee to consider policy on the names and mascots at all the district’s schools, not merely at Polk Elementary. Nearly three dozen people from the community commented on the proposal, and nearly all were in favor of the name change.
Those who opposed the name change mainly said they did so because of the financial cost to the school district. No one really defended the reputation of President James K. Polk as a reason to keep his name on the school. To date, 1,358 people have signed the online petition to change the name.
That’s not an entirely satisfying result for Malachi. After experiencing the efforts to impede and delay his project, he feels let down, “I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded in educating that many people. I’ve educated some people; there’s a lot of people who signed my petition. But there’s [other] people that I don’t feel like I’ve educated. They’re very ignorant as to what’s going on, and they don’t want to change.”
His parents, Crystal Cabrera and Gabriel Suarez, are likewise disappointed as they articulated in a letter to school authorities. “Thus far, our son has not taken much positive away from this experience. He has learned that it does not matter if you follow all of the rules, if you have an unconventional perspective.
“If you go against the grain, you’re punished. It doesn’t even matter if what you are trying to accomplish is for the greater good. He has also seen that people who are supposed to support you will get in your way to protect the status quo.”
Disheartened as they might be at the moment by the bureaucratic process and the stalling, a pathway has been opened for a deeper look into our shared history and culture. That will likely generate some vigorous community discussion about history, values and ethics and, who knows, maybe a name change.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.