A Crash Course in Tolerance

Rosie Heffernan's students are no dummies when it comes to the U.S. Constitution -- as their parents are learning

You can't go around slashing dogs," Rosie Heffernan warns a roomful of chattering high school students at Our Lady of Lourdes, an all-girl Catholic academy in South Miami. Not that any of the girls has converted to a religious cult with a penchant for cutting up canines.

Rather, Heffernan, their American government teacher, is facetiously making a point about the U.S. Constitution: Religious freedom ends where illegal activity begins. She is whipping eighteen of her brightest students into fighting trim for the "We the People" competition, an annual contest in which high schoolers from around the nation display their expertise regarding the Constitution. Last month Our Lady of Lourdes won the Florida Congressional District 18 title and advanced to the state level, which is being staged in Orlando this week. (If they win there, it's on to Washington, D.C., for the national finals in April.)

The remark about dog-slashing unleashes a crescendo of comments about religions that use poisonous snakes and peyote. "Girls, focus," Heffernan says in a calm but firm tone. The students turn their attention to a classmate at the front of the room who is reciting prepared remarks about how the Bill of Rights balances the rights of individuals against the greater good.

"My right to swing my fist ends where the other's nose begins," she says, quoting former Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The adage is a favorite among the girls; it illustrates the kind of reasoning that Heffernan has instilled in her students, and which led Our Lady of Lourdes to victory at the "We the People" national finals last April. And in 1994.

It is also the kind of reasoning that can be outright seditious in Miami's Cuban exile community -- the community in which most of the girls on Heffernan's elite squad were raised.

Her students may appear to be the epitome of conformity in their school uniforms -- navy slacks with white-and-blue-striped polo shirts or light blue oxford shirts. But the views they have come to adopt, as a result of Heffernan's intensive training sessions, have made for some dicey dynamics at home.

Take, for instance, the controversial case of Peggi McKinley, who was removed from Miami-Dade County's film advisory board this past September after she suggested that musicians from Cuba be allowed to perform at a music conference in Miami. Singer Gloria Estefan later criticized Commissioner Bruce Kaplan for dumping McKinley.

"I was, like, what's the big deal?" says seventeen-year-old Monica Leal, standing in the corridor outside Heffernan's second-floor room after practice. "My mom didn't really care, but my grandfather was really upset [with Estefan]. Basically the Cuban community got upset because [they thought] she advocated giving Fidel the opportunity to come and spread his ideas or something ... but it's just not like that. The United States stands for the right of every individual, even if you're here visiting. If we believe it for ourselves, we have to believe it for everybody, you know?"

Notes Miriann Guazzini, the only junior on a team of seniors: "Even if they are ambassadors for Castro, we do believe in freedom of ideology. I mean, I can be a communist anywhere and still have certain natural rights." With a laugh, she adds, "No, I'm not communist."

Teammate Melissa Zirini, whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the Sixties, cites the case of Rosita Fornes. The Cuban singer was forced to cancel a Miami Beach concert in September 1996 amid threats of violent protests by exiles accusing her of being a Castro sympathizer. She also canceled several appearances in July of that year after a Molotov cocktail crashed through a window at Centro Vasco, where she was to have performed. "You have the right to protest all you'd like, but it ends when you infringe on someone else's individual rights," Zirini insists.

"If she's given the liberty in her own country to come here, then what right do we have, a country that embodies those rights, to deny her that and to belittle the few rights she has in her own country?" Leal adds.

Heffernan says she was appalled by the degree of intolerance in Miami when she moved here from Connecticut twenty years ago. But she sees a generational shift taking place between her students and their elders. "It's interesting how the children of these people and the grandchildren of these people have embraced the Constitution so much that they are probably at the opposite end [of the spectrum in] the amount of acceptance they have for all religious groups, all races, every type of group, sexual orientations, everything. They are so much more open, whereas their parents and their grandparents have embraced the country but haven't quite embraced the principles."

Indeed Heffernan's students espouse a traditionally "liberal" position on issues totally unrelated to exile politics -- such as a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Communications Decency Act (and thus allowing pornography to remain on the Internet). "Some people felt the [Act] was unconstitutional because it limited your First Amendment right to free speech and free expression," Guazzini explains. "It was a conflict between individual rights versus the common welfare, and we saw the [court] again tip toward individual rights."

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