Student officers for the Indiana High School Press Association listed Mary Beth Tinker at the top of a list of speakers for this year’s First Amendment Symposium.
Journalism teachers may have been more excited than the students when this “celebrity of a First Amendment landmark case” accepted the invitation to speak.
In 38 years of special events and keynote speakers I have never seen so many people gather before and after an event for an extra word, to shake hands, take a photo or express appreciation for her contribution to freedom of expression.
The irony is that the extraordinary part of Mary Beth Tinker is that she was and remains ordinary.
In 1965, Tinker was a shy eighth grader, and a good student who didn’t want to be in trouble at school. Yet she felt that she should be able to wear a black armband to support peace and protest war. She was suspended from school, and her family received hate mail and threats on their lives when they supported their children’s right of expression.
The Tinkers were as surprised as anyone when the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where a 7-2 decision ruled that Mary Beth should be able to wear an armband to school and that all students and teachers who enter a public school should “not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
Today, Mary Beth Tinker is a registered nurse—still an ordinary citizen, but one who realizes that her name gives her the opportunity to encourage other ordinary citizens to “speak up, shake things up and create change that makes the world a better place.”
She emphasizes the fact that everyone makes history. She says that some people make history because they decide to make a stand, and others make history because they do not.
When she told one of her young patients that her name was Mary Beth Tinker, he sized her up as just another nurse and told her that he had seen the real Mary Beth Tinker one time.
Mary Beth Tinker could play the hero, but she has a new role as a cheerleader for activism. She realizes that when people see that she is more like them they are more likely to realize their own power to rise above the ordinary to the extraordinary.