Tuesday, June 03, 2008

We Can Save Ourselves From Sinking

By Kevin Guilfoile

When we were seniors in high school my friend Rob broke his arm in a skiing accident. Instead of having his friends sign it or decorating it with some kind of Warren Zevon motif as I might have expected, Rob took a Sharpie pen and wrote seven large letters across the front of it: R-O-N H-E-A-D.

Ron Head was our economics teacher. Rob and I also had him for homeroom. Rob liked to sit in the front row, and the morning after he received his cast he sat at his desk and flopped his immobilized arm across the front of it. Mr. Head squinted and looked at it sideways. "What's that about?"

"It's an homage," Rob said cheerily.

I was student body president at the time and so I was called to the principal's office for a summit meeting on the situation. The principal reacted as if the letters on Rob's cast were some sort of sleeper cell code triggering a terrorist attack.

"What are we going to do about this?" he demanded.

"Um, nothing?" I said.

"The writing on this cast shows gross disrespect," he said.

"I don't think so," I said. "Ron Head Sucks would be a sign of disrespect. I don't think he has anything against Mr. Head. He just wrote his name in really big letters."

"If he's not mocking him, then why did he do it?" he asked.

I was only 18 so I didn't know much about modern art, but I told the principal I thought Rob wrote that on his cast for two reasons:

1. There are only seven letters in Mr. Head's name so Rob could write it at such a size that it could be seen from a long way away.

2. He knew it would agitate you.


Parents were called in. I was asked several times to intervene. I refused. It was a silly thing, but it was one of a string of free speech issues (most of them not this amusing) that I had been forced to address throughout the year and I could tell that if I gave in on any of them the adults would keep pushing and pushing and pushing. One of my last duties as president was to help oversee the election of the following year's officers and I remember being alone in a room with a school administrator when it became clear that the candidate he favored for student council treasurer was going to lose. He looked at me and said, half-seriously, "I wish there was a way we could fix this thing." He laughed, but at the time I had no doubt that he would do it if I let him.

For me the whole year was a memorable lesson in power. People who have power will always ask for more of it and it is the duty of people with less power to say no as frequently as possible.

I was reminded of all this a couple weeks ago when I heard that Linda Kane had been removed from her position as student newspaper advisor at Naperville Central High School after nearly 20 years in that position. Under her leadership, the Naperville Central Times had risen to national prominence. It is perennially ranked among the top high school newspapers in the country, and even broke important stories under difficult circumstances.

Last February the Central Times published a series on marijuana use. One of the stories contained profanity. Naperville principal Jim Caudill asked that the paper change its policies regarding acceptable language and Ms. Kane refused. The following week, in the Daily Herald newspaper, she was quoted criticizing Principal Caudill, saying "he doesn't know squat" about the First Amendment. He asked her to resign. She refused. Caudill fired her.

Six weeks later, the Central Times finished third in the Illinois High School Association's journalism competition.

It all seemed unfair. A gross overreaction. Certainly it is more important to teach students about journalistic freedom, integrity, ethics, and responsibility than it is to protect them from profanity. Those lessons are undoubtedly more important than a high school principal's desire not to have his ego bruised in public, or his fear of being disrespected.

But then something happened to remind us that the universe can wrap up a gift tidier than all the fictionalists in the world combined.

Jim Caudill, who just months earlier fired a teacher for claiming he "didn't know squat" about the First Amendment, was caught plagiarizing large sections of a decade-old speech and recycling them for a talk he gave at an honors ceremony for graduating seniors. Incredibly, the student who actually wrote those lines is now a teacher at Naperville Central and was in the room when Caudill was reading her words without credit.

As Trib columnist Eric Zorn points out, the principal's excuse was even more pathetic than the original offense. Caudill claimed that he found the speech in a file and meant to call the individual to ask if he could borrow from it, but time slipped away and he didn't realize until he was on stage giving his talk that he had never called. Except that totally misses the point. He didn't have to call Megan Nowicki-Plackett and ask permission. He needed to credit her in the text of the speech, which he apparently never had any intention of doing.

So now Jim Caudill has been removed as principal at Naperville Central and although I don't know Ms. Kane, I hope his successor has the good sense to return her to her post. I should think people like her are desperately needed as an example to counter Mr. Caudill's. If you doubt it, the valedictorian of Naperville Central was just caught plagiarizing his graduation speech from The Onion.

As for my buddy Rob with the broken arm he's now one hell of a DIYer. He also has a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering, which is quite a good thing. We need more good journalism teachers and environment doctors than we do controlling school administrators.

But you can't say the kids in Naperville haven't learned anything this semester.

---

Also, a program note: Libby, Michael, Marcus, Sean and I will be at the always great Printers Row Book Fair in downtown Chicago this Saturday at 4PM. Our panel, Murder Most Foul will take place in the Grace Place sanctuary, right on Dearborn at the heart of the fair, across from the Heartland Stage. And if it's very hot, I'll point out that our event is indoors.

You can download a full Printers Row schedule or a helpful event map.

22 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, thanks for another valuable & insightful post.

Anonymous said...

I was almost expelled for helping start a student newspaper when I was a senior. I was in the top 5 of my class, and an honor society member to boot.

There was no profanity. We couldn't find a teacher who was willing to help us because they were all afraid of the administration, so we started it on our own, on our own time.

We were months from being college students and were treated as naughty preschoolers. Two of us who were honor society members were forced to resign or be expelled.

The four of us are now successful and responsible.

It amazes me that this has happened over twenty years after my situation.

Dana King said...

I am of two minds on the First Amendment question. Anything printed in any newspaper is subject to approval of the publisher, which in this case is, in essence, the principal. He should tread lightly, and it sounds like he went overboard in this case, but even Tom Friedman can't print any word he chooses in the New York Times.

The teacher didn;t help herself by calling him out publicly, either. Someone (aside from the students) should have decided to be an adult at some point instead of starting a spitting content.

All told, he was not only wrong to fire her, his plagiarism is a far greater offense than hers. Life rarely works out so neatly, we can only enjoy it when it does.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I've been getting emails from other Cooperstown graduates with their own Ron Head stories and I wanted to share one of them because it almost brings this story back to the topic of crime and justice. It is as silly as the first one, but it's a cautionary tale, as well.

Another friend from my class, Peter, spent a high school spring break with his family in Clearwater, Florida. For reasons that are almost forgotten all these years later, Pete wrote the word "RON" on his chest in sunscreen while his brother wrote the word "HEAD," and the subsequent hours on the beach engraved those words on their skin. After he returned to school word got around so quickly that a trio of teachers actually pulled him out of the hallway and asked him if the rumor was true and they giggled when he showed them the name on his chest. Peter realized that if the story had made it to the teacher's lounge, Mr. Head must have learned about the prank as well. But Mr. Head never said a word.

A few summers later, Peter was driving to the grocery store to pick up some Fig Newtons and rolled through a yellow at the only stop light in town. A policeman pulled him over and he was required to appear in court.

I should pause here to explain that Cooperstown is a small enough village that an individual who is, say, a high school teacher, might also be a judge.

Which is how Peter found himself at the mercy of Justice Ron Head.

When he later told a local attorney how much he had been fined, the lawyer didn't believe him.

Libby said...

Don't leave us hanging, Kevin... how much was it?

steve said...

Coincidentally, Mr. Head was just quoted in a NY Times article.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks for that Steve. That article's great. It's from about 12 years ago, but that's a nice little snapshot of Cooperstown.

For those who don't want to read the whole article, it ends with a great Mr. Head story as told by the man himself:

When Justice Head, an imposing figure who shares the cramped municipal office with Justice Smith and the Village Mayor, has a legal question, he calls a state resource center staffed by two full-time lawyers. He hears misdemeanors ranging from marijuana possession and domestic violence to Cooperstown's perennial quality-of-life problems: spitting, shoving and skateboarding down Main Street. ''Lawyers from downstate can't believe we go after someone for stealing a blanket from a motel,'' said the justice. ''But we do.''

He is of mixed emotions about the effects of working in a small legal community. One advantage, he said, is that he has known most of the lawyers, litigants and their families from his extra-judicial life: over the years, they passed before him either in a classroom or a driver's ed car.

But the informality of Otsego County's style of legal practice, he allowed, can be a problem. In the justice's last jury trial, jurors were exasperated: not only were they tired of being repeatedly called for jury duty (the jury pool in a village of 2,300 is rather limited), but this trial, a driving-while-intoxicated case, was stretching into its fourth night. As the prosecutor and the defense lawyer locked horns over a legal question, the judge herded them outside.

When the three finally returned to court, the jurors were passing time by gossiping with the defendant.

''It was 'How's your kid doing? How's work?,' that sort of thing, because they all knew each other,'' recalled the justice. An embarrassed look crossed his face, as he added, ''So I had to declare a mistrial.''

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