When a swastika appeared at school, Rufus King students spread love to 1,500 desks

MILWAUKEE – They met after school one day, last spring at Rufus King International High School.  About 40 student volunteers gathered up 1,500 messages of love and then – everyone, go!

The notes were the response of a school interfaith club, Wisconsin United in Love, to a single incident of antisemitism at school. When a swastika and thunderbolt were found dark-penciled onto a desk corner, students decided it was time for every desk corner in the school to get papered in love. That’s 1,500 desks.

English teacher Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher is a whiz at providing initial guidance, then stepping back to let students take charge, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Hours Against Hate program coordinator, Andrea Bernstein. O’Keefe-Boettcher is the faculty member overseeing both the Wisconsin United in Love group and Jew Crew, the small but mighty Jewish club at the school.

How it unfolded

“A student came to miss OKB last year with some antisemitic symbols found on their desk,” recalled Ellie Balotovsky, a Jewish tenth-grade student here. “So there was a Wisconsin United in Love meeting called.”

Students mobilized with “You belong here,” “Rufus King loves you,” and other notes. “They divided up into teams to go through the halls and reach every classroom,” recalled Bernstein, who was present as an observer.

After 40 students fanned out to tape the little paper notes onto the corners of 1,500 student desks in the large public high school, the notes remained intact for months.

Messages taped to desks at Rufus King International High School
“You belong here.”
“Rufus King loves you.”
“Unity at Rufus King.”

Steve Marshall, a substitute teacher here whose kids went through Jew Crew and religious school at Congregation Sinai, didn’t know what the notes were all about when he first saw them. “I just went, ‘oh wow, that’s pretty cool’,” he recalled. “All the desks had a message on them.”

Soon, everyone knew.

“There was an overwhelming pride and appreciation that these kids saw (the graffiti) and took action,” O’Keefe-Boettcher said. “I had a lot of comments from kids saying I never want that post-it to come off my desk.”

Steve Marshall is a longtime teacher with Rufus King International High School and a member of the local Jewish community.

Oh, there were some notes that wound up in tatters, just from desk use. But there was certainly no wholesale effort to remove the notes and there were none that seemed removed intentionally, she said.

At the time, it would have been nice to think that the antisemitism could have come from someone attending a class for people from outside the school. Maybe it did. We’ll likely never know.

But that doesn’t matter, said O’Keefe-Boettcher, adding, “We will respond to hate in our home.”

More on Rufus King: At Rufus King, Wisconsin is united in love …