Katella High School students walked to class this morning with “Fuck Trump” graffiti greeting them on a green construction fence. Although no one knows who the culprit is (sorry, folks: it wasn’t us; we like to leave our scribbles online!), it seems a direct response to a flare-up that happened this past Friday between students and the Anaheim school’s principal, Ben Carpenter. That day, he offered a series of classroom presentations he hoped would dispel “improper assumptions” about his attendance at last month’s Donald Trump rally in Costa Mesa.
Carpenter might have never bothered, but students protesting the Donald saw their principal waiting in line to see the Republican presidential hopeful at the Pacific Amphitheater. Better yet, the “keep it simple” principal sported a black “Make America Great Again” hat. They saw him, but he didn’t see them. Chatter on campus—historically a gabacho-majority school but nowadays nearly 90 percent Latino—continued for weeks about Carpenter attending the rally. An upset student finally asked her English teacher during class why Carpenter had gone to the rally. The teacher relayed the question over to him, and “D Carp,” as the kids call him, decided to take the issue head on.
Carpenter began his classroom presentations by asking, “How many of you heard I went to a Trump rally?” About four or five students would raise their hands. “When you heard I went to a Trump rally, what did you think?” He got a wide array of responses, but during one class, a young girl asked the obvious: “I wonder why a principal would go to a Trump rally when his school is made up of Mexicans?”
The Weekly wondered the same and interviewed Carpenter the next morning over breakfast at a local IHOP in Anaheim at his invitation. He appeared a little rattled at first but settled in to recount how he told students about his 4:30 a.m. morning ritual that includes getting up to read the Orange County Register and the Wall Street Journal while flipping through all the cable news networks to gain an array of political perspectives. Carpenter held up a journal next where he jots all his life goals. “This year, I really set out to live my life because I have a neighbor who’s dying of brain cancer,” he says.
First, the principal listed all the things he’s passionate about, including politics. Carpenter showed students pictures he took with former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, Senator Rand Paul, Democrat pollster Doug Schoen, and Fox News contributor Juan Williams. Carpenter spent the better part of twenty minutes relaying other things in his zest for life. He got a scuba certification and even flew in a glider. “I love to experience everything,” Carpenter told students. “With all of that in mind, does it really surprise you that I was at a Trump rally?”
Carpenter says he’s never been to a political rally before and actually never made it inside the Pacific Amphitheater. He waited in line for a couple hours, bought a “Make America Great Again” hat and donned it while taking a selfie with protesters serving as the backdrop, a photo he showed to his students. “Do you support Trump?” one asked. “I’m not going to answer that,” Carpenter replied, wanting to keep his presidential preference private. A larger discussion about a range of issues—from gun rights to gender-neutral bathrooms—broke out next, but the talk came back to Trump.
“What about the wall?” another student asked. “The wall has been talked about so much that it’s actually becoming a metaphor for ‘we have an immigration problem.”‘ Carpenter said. He thinks a physical wall sealing off Mexico is highly unlikely to be built. Mass deportations? “Would I support that? Absolutely not!” he added.
Having been Katella’s principal since 2013, Carpenter shared a number of personal charitable stories with the Weekly that weren’t part of his presentation. He recounted paying college registration fees for an undocumented student on one occasion and getting food, sneakers, clothes and haircuts for two other poor students sin papeles on another. When a panicked student’s father faced deportation, Carpenter didn’t hesitate to write a letter on the student’s behalf to avoid the same fate.
But Carpenter’s no stranger to controversy. Five years ago, he defended a three-tier color-coded student ID incentive program based on standardized test scores while principal at Cypress High School. The California Teachers Association and American Civil Liberties Union tag-teamed to back state legislation barring test scores to be outed in any such manner. And our own Mexican-in-Chief had his own memories of Carpenter while he attended Anaheim High in the late 1990s:
If memory serves me correct, Carpenter was part of the administration that suspended a bunch of Anaheim varsity football players after a pre-season orange fight in 1995, a fight that had been a team tradition for years. Those suspensions fucked up the senior season of Reuben Droughns, the greatest Colonist of all time and a guy who’d go on to play in the NFL for years. I do remember students not liking Carpenter because he always seemed to be angry and yell-y, and I do know he served under Principal Doug Muncey, who remains the only living human mummy I’ve ever met
Since Carpenter claims going to the Trump rally was all about the experience, what did he take away from it anyway? “We are a very divided country,” he says. “The rhetoric on both sides is very divisive.” He had choice words of his own when talking to students about the counter-protesters, calling them “idiots” and “vandals,” but only for those who jumped on police cars and the like. Carpenter says he also took offense when a Trump supporter kept yelling “Go back to Mexico!”
But what about that Trump hat? “We were all laughing because it said “Made in China,”‘ he says. Carpenter adds that he hasn’t worn it since and actually mailed the hat to his mom to place it in the memorabilia room his late father kept of presidential collector items.
“I bought it as a piece of history,” Carpenter says. “It’s all about the experience and living history.”