This week was supposed to be graduation time for Kayden Hunt, student body president at Ardrey Kell High in south Charlotte. But this year has brought one extraordinary challenge after another.
So as the nation erupted in protests over the death of George Floyd, Hunt, who’s African American, got permission last week to paint her school's rock with messages decrying police brutality and declaring that black lives matter.
Sunday she awoke to social media messages saying the rock had been vandalized, with the students’ messages crossed out and hateful words written in.
Hunt asked her father to go with her to see it.
"It brought me to tears," she said. "To see the hate on something so beautiful, on that piece of art that we all did together."
She shed more tears Monday but for a different reason. Hundreds of students, graduates, parents and faculty members joined her on campus to repaint it.
"I asked people on my Instagram, 'Hey, do you want to paint this rock?' I would never have expected this, and this many people to be here in support," she said Monday afternoon, choking up as the crowd cheered.
The campus filled with a crowd that looked a lot like the mix of black, white, Asian and Hispanic students that make up Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Ardrey Kell is a majority white school in a minority white district, located in one of Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods.
"We want to spread love in this area," Hunt told the crowd. "That we belong here. We deserve to feel comfortable here as black students."
The school has faced racial flare-ups in recent years. Hunt, like many others, says there’s racism at Ardrey Kell – but there’s racism everywhere.
Barbi Gearson, who is white, came with her daughter, an Ardrey Kell student.
"This is more than important. It’s critical," Gearson said. "The idea that our children are having to experience this, fighting for their equal rights like this, is ridiculous."
Earnest Winston, the district’s second black superintendent, said he came to send a message of solidarity with Hunt and other students: "We will not tolerate systemic racism, structural inequalities, and bigotry – toward African Americans in particular, but to all members of our community."
Winston says the CMS police chief is investigating the vandalism. Rocks at two nearby middle schools painted with similar messages were also defaced over the weekend.
Ardrey Kell Principal David Switzer says it’s unlikely that security cameras got a good view of anyone at the rock, which is separated from the main building by a large parking lot and a tree-filled lawn.
Shortly before the event, CMS sent out a video of Switzer condemning the vandalism.
At first, Switzer insisted on staying on message and letting that clip speak for him. But as some students painted, others held up signs and motorists honked and raised fists in solidarity, Switzer stepped in front of mics and cameras. Flushed and teary, he spoke about his sadness and anger.
"I’ve been here 10 years. These kids mean a lot to me," he said, struggling for composure. "I’ve seen graduates here that have come back, who are supportive of the mission. I’ve seen kids, the faces – they didn’t deserve the rock to be defaced and the rock was only an example. It was symbolic of what’s happening in this country."
As for Kayden Hunt, she alternated between dancing, painting and accepting hugs and congratulations.
"I feel blessed. I’m so happy that something so negative turned into something so positive, and seeing the community in support, it was amazing," she said.
If there’s a bright side, she says, it’s that sometimes you have to see hate to be able to fix it.
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