The death of America’s Queen – how Payton students and faculty reacted to Queen Elizabeth II’s passing

By Annya Kong, Contributor

Today marks the last day of Britain’s national mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, whose seven decade reign ended on Sep. 8th, aged 96. In the United States, the news came on a standard Thursday afternoon. Sitting in class, I met the buzz on my phone – an NBC news notification – with an initially innocuous glance; then, in the next moment, a wide-eyed hiss across the table: “Queen Elizabeth died!” 

The phrase was taken up across the room like a shockwave; for several minutes the lesson was disrupted as excited chatter rose in chaotic tandem. Subsequent classes were abuzz with the news; exclamations of surprise bubbled in the hallway and between desks. “I was shocked,” says one student. “It happened so quickly.”

Emotional Payton seniors solemnly reacting to news regarding the Queen’s death and footage of her funeral.

Students weren’t the only ones to express surprise at the news. An anonymous faculty member reported experiencing a “period of shock and grief.” But the dramatic response of the people of Payton should, perhaps, be considered more surprising than the Queen’s death itself. As one student put, “I live in America. I didn’t care.”

Yet I can attest that many of us did care that Thursday afternoon. Despite living in a country across the sea from Britain – with that very argument having been used in the incitement of a war to free ourselves from it – we and countless other Americans seemed to momentarily put our lives on pause to mourn a monarch that wasn’t ours. For a week, the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the subsequent ascension of the new king seemed to overshadow all else. Why?

Since Princess Diana, the monarchy has held celebrity-like status in the eyes of Americans. Royal scandals and family drama like that of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry drew widespread media attention. Meanwhile, the Netflix series “The Crown”, depicting the royal family’s life and chronicling that of the queen, attracted instant popularity. It’s also worth recalling that many Americans were brought up on stories of princesses, princes and queens, learning to idolize them from a very early age. Much like how Kardashian extravagance attracts public interest, the remote, wealthy world of the royal family is an easy object of romanticism, escapism and fascination. Micheal Levenson of the New York Times likens the monarchy to “a centuries-old family drama… the longest-running reality show or soap opera on earth.” 

Besides its high entertainment value, American preoccupation with royalty can be traced back to colonial times, where we once existed as part of the empire under the monarchy. In fact, even as colonists were brimming with the indignance and excitement of rebellion, they initially pardoned King George III when criticizing British tyranny, singling out Parliament instead. Despite being from a bygone era, this attachment still exists in undertones today. Indeed, even the January 6th insurrection is a mark of its prevalence, with the undermining of voting rights and denial of election results as an attempt to preserve the presidency of Donald J. Trump serving as a demonstration of the lingering appeal of white monarchical rule. 

What makes their reaction more striking was students’ profound lack of knowledge about the late Queen. When asked what they knew, answers ranged from “She was old” to “a youtube video of her shows that her humor entails pulling bread out of a handbag.” This brings up another topic of interest: the role of social media in documenting, glamorizing, and disseminating information about Queen Elizabeth’s life and death. 

A report by Michael Robb and Laura Wronski shows that many, if not most, teenagers get information nowadays primarily from platforms like Tiktok and Twitter, rather than official news sources. There is certainly no shortage of commentary and coverage on such networks, with Tiktok delivering information via an abundance of explainers and tweets ranging from the entertaining to the controversial appearing all over Twitter following the queen’s death. Even throughout her lifetime, Queen Elizabeth has been a popular subject of online discourse and memeification; in fact, the outburst over her death may have been caused, in part, by the disruption of the circulating joke that Elizabeth was secretly immortal. The news itself was initially broken by the Royal Family Twitter account, a testament to the growing significance of social media in politics and communications. This explains why, even without knowing specific factual information about the Queen, students still found themselves engaged with her life – or at least, the online image of it – and subsequently roused by her death.

For those who knew more about Elizabeth’s legacy, however, a more solemn and critical tone prevailed. This was especially true among Payton teachers and faculty members. One such person wrote, when asked how they reacted upon hearing the news of Queen Elizabeth’s death,  “I felt indifferent. The British monarchy has caused pain and turmoil to people all throughout history and the world, and Elizabeth II wasn’t any different. She committed monstrous acts and allowed monstrous acts to happen with no accountability on the part of herself or anyone else in her family – so while those who are grieving certainly deserve to do so, I certainly will not.” This was a sentiment shared by many who refused to mourn or even celebrated Elizabeth’s death. While it cannot be denied that the late queen served as a symbol and passive perpetrator of British colonialism, oppression, exploitation and violence, it also cannot be denied that her passing marks the end of an era – a conclusion that has been felt all across the globe.

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