Last Friday morning, Meagan Downey got a text from her daughter, Fiona, who had just started her first year at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.
“MOM,” read Fiona’s message, in all caps, “I FLIPPED OFF THE ANTI-MASKERS AND SHE FLIPPED ME OFF BACK.”
The “anti-maskers” are a group of parents who have been standing outside CVU every weekday morning, protesting the school’s indoor mask requirement. “OMG,” Meagan wrote back. “They think they are protecting you.”
But after seeing the demonstrators out there every morning, holding signs with messages along the lines of “The mask is not the cure” and “100% Vermont survival rate for 0-29 year-olds,” Fiona, 14, was exasperated.
“It’s just so hard to see them not taking safety precautions seriously and trying to persuade kids to do the worst of the worst,” she said in an interview.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Then, the next morning, Fiona got an email from her eighth grade science teacher. Photographer Glenn Russell had captured Fiona flipping the bird in an image that accompanied a VTDigger.org story on the anti-mask protests at CVU; her teacher had recognized the sliver of glasses and forehead looking out the bus window. She told Fiona she was proud of her.
Within hours, the image went viral. Philip Lewis, a senior editor at the Huffington Post, tweeted a screenshot of the photo, which has so far received more than 95,000 likes. “This photo should win a Pulitzer,” he wrote. A rash of TikToks followed, including one by a user named Beepbeepzebib, featuring the caption “Our little American heroes,” which received more than 100,000 likes.
As Fiona and Meagan absorbed the shock of Fiona’s sudden internet celebrity, they noticed that some people were impersonating them in the comment sections of various social media platforms. “Some people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my daughter, I’m so proud of her!’” said Fiona. “It was so weird.”
To ward off the impostors, Megan, who produces a line of reusable gift wrap from her home in Shelburne, tweeted on Sunday that she was the real mother of Fiona. In response, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden) tweeted: “Yes Queen and Queen Mother! Stay compassionate and courageous, and run for office.”
After a year and a half of pandemic schooling, on top of the usual trials of early teenagehood, Meagan understands the intensity of her daughter's frustration. "This has been particularly hard on adolescents," she said. "They're coming of age, they're old enough to see what's happening, but they don't have a lot of control. I think in that moment, my daughter did have control over what she could do with her hand, and she chose to use it."
Mostly, the online response has been overwhelmingly positive. “People have offered to buy me creemees,” Fiona said. “Someone else offered to buy me shoes. And people offered to give me scholarships — which, like, I’m fine with that. Love a scholarship.”
But some of the reactions have been unnervingly hostile; in reply to one supportive comment that Fiona was “going places,” she said, someone wrote: “Straight to the ER.”
Meagan, for her part, just wants Fiona to enjoy being a normal high school student. “She’s such a kind, compassionate person,” Meagan said. “I want this to be a time for her to thrive.”
Fiona loves photography, and she was fascinated by the composition of Russell’s photo, with the blurry protest sign in the foreground and the sharp focus on her outstretched middle finger in the distance. “I feel like it’s such a great metaphor,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe it, really, but I just thought it was beautiful.”