When Kelly Holstine first heard that teachers who were to be honored at the NCAA football championship game had the option to not put their hand over their heart during the national anthem, she wondered, "Is that enough?"
She decided that, for her, it wasn't. The teacher chose to kneel.
Before Monday night's game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans between Clemson and Louisiana State University, 54 teachers were brought onto the field for a ceremony to honor the 2019 Teachers of the Year. The teachers remained on the field while the national anthem played.
Also on the field as the national anthem played was President Donald Trump, who has been vocal about his distaste for people who kneel in protest during the anthem.
Holstine, who was the Teacher of the Year for Minnesota, said the president's presence and "his choice to consistently discriminate against marginalized and oppressed humans definitely factored into my decision to kneel."
She has long advocated that educators need to be more than just allies and stand up for those who are oppressed or marginalized.
"It just felt like it was an opportunity to be an advocate," Holstine told ABC News on Friday. "If I had chosen not to take it, it wouldn't have felt authentic to what I believe in my heart is the right thing to do."
Since 2016, kneeling in protest has become somewhat synonymous with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee to protest police brutality against black Americans.
"I really respect the work he's done and the fact that he just paved the way for this movement," Holstine said.
"I really appreciate the country … but I think there is a lot of room for improvement"
She decided to kneel as a peaceful protest right before she went on the field but had been toying with it since the day before, when she and the other honorees were going through a rehearsal for the ceremony. She spoke with a few other teachers and researched kneeling.
In making her decision, Holstine referenced Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, who spoke with Kaepernick in 2016 to discuss his protest. Boyer has said that if one is not going to stand for the national anthem, kneeling is more respectful than sitting down, according to an interview he did in 2018 with NPR.
"People assume that if you feel that there's some room for growth in the U.S. that it automatically means you're anti-U.S.," Holstine said. "That's not the case."
"I really appreciate the country … but I think there is a lot of room for improvement and that's the beautiful thing about our country. We have the First Amendment and we can express that," she added.
In April 2019, she was one of two "Teachers of the Year" who skipped a White House ceremony for them. During a 2017 rally, discussing the NFL, Trump referred to a person who kneels during the anthem as a "son of a b----."
Kneeling on Monday and her choice to skip the 2019 ceremony are aligned with Holstine's belief that "our current administration is making choices through words and behaviors and actions that is disrespectful to our marginalized and oppressed humans in our country."
She hopes to speak out for those who can't, and some of her former students at the Tokata Learning Center, where she taught English and language arts from 2012 to 2019, have reached out to her to express their gratitude, she said.
"I just really feel like when you're given the honor of becoming Teacher of the Year and represent your state, it also comes with a responsibility," Holstine said.
Holstine is now serving as the director of education equity for OutFront Minnesota, the state's largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.
While she said she is grateful for the opportunity she had at the football game, advocating for what she believes in is part of her day-to-day.
"I can't not stand up for folks," she added.
- Ella Torres