I don’t talk much about my high school years, typically.
I went to high school in Chesterland, Ohio, near Kent State University’s Geauga campus. If you’ve never been to Northeast Ohio, the best way I can describe it is to say that it’s a great place to be from. I say that because you can leave it and be relatively sure you’re not missing anything interesting. If they ever turn my life story into a movie, Northeast Ohio will be be featured in five seconds of pastoral establishing shots: cows in a field, overgrown cattails in a ditch next to a gravel road, a split-log fence. And then the camera will show me packing and leaving. That was risky, because the only way to die in Geauga County is to drive to the border–even the Grim Reaper wouldn’t be caught dead there.
I wish that was the reason that we didn’t have a high school newspaper at the time–that there wasn’t anything important going on. But of course, that wasn’t the reason.
The school had a pervasive environment of repression. While some teachers would operate their classrooms as places safe for free inquiry and thought, the overall school policy was that that students were to be seen, not heard (or educated).
The fact that the administration had no interest in hearing what students had to say was all the more astonishing given that any student–practically every student in the building–knew all sorts of things that administrators probably would’ve liked to know. For example, given the number of times that drug dogs searched the buildings, I’m guessing the administration would’ve liked to know what kind of drug problem the school had. That’s information that pretty much every student knew–what drugs were available, who sold them, and why the dogs didn’t hit on their lockers.
Of course, they would’ve had to actually listen to a student to discover that information.
Instead, the school banned bookbags and backpacks. Why? Because there might be drugs in them.
Surely, it will come as a great shock to you that I was, perhaps, a nerd. If the school had decided to just take every student who did drugs outside and shoot them, it wouldn’t have changed my basic school day any. But banning bookbags was a strike to the heart of my educational experience.
I took classes. With many books. And my locker was very far away. This aggression would not stand.
I wish there had been a newspaper. Instead, I was on the Academic Decathlon team, and had to write a speech for that. I picked the topic of… the school’s backpack ban. And into my speech, I incorporated some basic knowledge I had picked up, as a student who never so much as saw drugs in person (at least, that I know of).
Based on what I’d learned in the lunchroom, I calculated that the amount of LSD that could be held in my now contraband Eastport backpack would’ve been enough to keep the state of Ohio high for approximately three weeks, assuming an ordinary tolerance. The street value of the drug, at the time (the mid-90s), would’ve been somewhere around a million and a half dollars. And I pointed out that anyone with a million and a half dollars worth of drugs probably isn’t going to be stopped by the minor inconvenience of banning a backpack, given the variety of ways in which students actually used their LSD at school, none of which involved a large bag of drugs.
Eventually, the school loosened the restriction so that mesh bags were acceptable, which was equally pointless given the actual problem, but did indicate that somewhere, in the back of their minds, the school officials who had heard my speech were capable of learning from their students. But there were only eight members of the Academic Decathlon team.
Imagine how much smarter those administrators would’ve been if the student body as a whole had been given an outlet like a student newspaper with which to inform administrators, parents, and each other about the issues that matter to them. Maybe they would even get smart enough to run a school where a nerd who never even had the slightest inclination to try drugs wouldn’t have to know so much about them.
A few years back, I got a high school reunion invitation. I looked at the school’s website and found that it now had a newspaper. On page two was a recurring feature: the Vice Principal’s column. It was admonishing students not to say things to rock the boat.
Not to disagree with my former vice principal, but my advice to student journalists everywhere is: rock the damn boat. Tell the truth and be glad to have the luxurious opportunity to use and defend the right to do so. Do it while they still let you have a newspaper. Do it while they still let you carry books.
Adam Goldstein is the SPLC’s attorney advocate. Check out other #SJW11 posts from the SPLC team this week. Please share your stories with us via Facebook and Twitter (@SPLC_org).