WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – David Wood wanted to speak up for months. He watched as bigotry increased throughout the country. Wood, a teacher and varsity boys’ basketball coach at West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School, was shocked by what was happening around him. He told friends what he was feeling but never spoke up publicly. Then last week, the hatred became personal.
Two of his players, both of whom are black, were called the N-word while walking down the street after practice. Wood, 62, knew he couldn’t stay silent. The next day at school he started writing an op-ed letter for the Lafayette Journal & Courier.
I am a black man who has, for the vast majority of my life, been proud to be an American ... I have been relatively silent about what has happened in our country since the election, but I can be silent no longer.
Wood said he never dreamed the letter would receive this much attention. In the letter Wood denounced President Trump and his actions, such as when he made fun of a handicapped journalist, threatened Muslims and participated in “locker room talk.” He blamed Trump for empowering white bigots in this country.
After it was published Jan. 25 it was picked up by numerous other media outlets. He received responses from teachers, students, administrators and people from California and Baltimore.
Most responses shared a similar message: thank you for having the courage to say what so many others have been thinking for months. Others shared why they didn’t agree with what Wood had to say.
Rocky Killion, superintendent for the West Lafayette Community School Corporation, read Wood’s op-ed letter online.
“I support my staff and any citizen in the United States to share opinions as allowed by the First Amendment,” Killion said in an interview with the Indiana Daily Student.
For Wood, it was always about protecting his players and his students, regardless of where they were from or what religion they practiced.
“I love my guys — black, blue, I don’t care,” Wood told the IDS. “They’re my guys.”
I believe that President Barack Obama’s election empowered black people in our country. I certainly felt that way.
Now I believe that we have empowered white bigots by electing a white bigot to the highest office in our country. Since the election, there have been far too many instances of bigots who feel that they can be who they are without fear of consequences.
Sophomore Nelson Mbongo, 16, was one of Wood’s players who was verbally assaulted Jan. 23. The team had been practicing at an elementary school a few blocks away from the high school. As the two were walking back, a black SUV pulled up next to them. Three young men rolled down the window, and shouted.
Mbongo shouted back. The car started to stop, and Mbongo and his teammate decided to run to a nearby house to get out of the situation.
The two then went to Wood’s office in the school and told him what happened. Wood told them they did the right thing by removing themselves from the situation.
“You learn quickly that the people who say those types of things want a reaction, so you can’t react,” Wood said.
Aside from a few off-hand comments from people in school or fans during games, this was the first incident of this kind that Mbongo has experienced. He said at one basketball game his parents overheard other fans saying the N-word. Mbongo never heard it, though. The community and school system he grew up in was mostly supportive, and he’s learned to stay out of certain situations and ignore ignorant comments.
Prejudice was not new for Wood. Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, he had experienced racial slurs and prejudice. After writing a few articles for his local paper nearly 30 years ago Wood was stopped by a woman in the grocery store. She asked who had punctuated and spelled everything in the articles correctly for him. Wood also recalled an incident 13 or 14 years ago when a racial slur was written on his car outside school. He learned to ignore these types of ignorant comments.
In an interview Friday, Wood said he worried these incidents would become far too common during the Trump administration. He knew he needed to address this issue and bring his thoughts out in the open. Wood’s fears only became worse Friday after Trump signed an executive order placing restrictions on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries.
Not all people who voted for Trump are bigots, but the ones that were now feel they can say or do anything without consequences, Wood said.
“If I would’ve said or done some of the things Trump did, I would have lost my job,” Wood said.
As an educator, Wood said it’s important to teach children to think critically and talk about their ideas and beliefs. If there’s one good thing to come from this letter, it’s getting people to talk.
“There’s dialogue happening, and that’s good,” Wood said. “It’s thought- provoking.”
Growing up in Indiana, Wood knew he had to be a basketball coach. When he was 8 years old, Wood sat on the bench with the Crispus Attucks basketball team and carried towels and water. He eventually moved to Pike Township and continued to play basketball in high school and at the University of Indianapolis. He’s now in his 23rd year coaching at West Lafayette.
Wood’s goal is to know every student’s name in the school. As he walked through the halls in between classes Friday afternoon, he greeted every student he knew by name. They responded with a “Hey, coach!” and an occasional high-five.
“You going to the game tonight?” Wood almost always asked.
I believe that God’s plan has included people like Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and yes, Meryl Streep. Thank God that President Lincoln, Ms. Parks, Dr. King and Ms. Streep and many others do not stay out of all of this.
I sincerely hope that this works out better than I think it will. I hope that four years from now I will say that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I have my doubts ... Right now, I just want to be proud to be an American again. Mostly what I feel now is shame.
It was Friday night, less than four days since his players were verbally assaulted and two days since his op-ed letter had run. The West Lafayette High School Red Devils were playing Culver Academy.
Before the game Wood sat in the bleachers with his clipboard and prepared plays. He would pause as parents, students and faculty came up to him, shook his hand and said, “Good luck, Coach.” When he walked across the gym floor to his seat on the sidelines, Wood pointed and waved at various fans in the crowd.
During the game, Wood became completely focused on his players. During every timeout, he sat in a chair inside a circle surrounded by his team.
When his players scored, he threw his hands up in celebration. When a player missed a free throw, he shouted, “Hey, you’re all right. It’s all right.” When the referee made a call Wood didn’t agree with, he argued it. When a player came off the court, Wood patted him on the back and said, “Good job.”
The second quarter was about to start, and the game was close.
“You don’t have to be in a hurry,” Wood told his team. “Slow down. Relax.”
The referee blew his whistle to signal the start of the next quarter. Wood looked at his team, nodded and broke up the huddle. He watched as his players returned to the court. Wood and his players put aside everything that had happened that week. Right now it was about the game.
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