jeweled platypus


monday, march 16, 2015
A student newspaper story

In high school, my principal accidentally taught me something: that publishing can give you a lot more access to power than you realized you had. This was pretty memorable, and I hope students are still learning this type of thing.

In 11th grade I was frustrated with some aspects of my public school, and it had no student publications or student government. This was 2004, so there was no Facebook for high school students or other obvious ways to have an organized, popular student backchannel online. After a fellow student tried to make an official newspaper and ran into obstacles, I decided it would be fun to run an underground newspaper: my classmates and I would report on weird and interesting things happening around campus, and we would decide exactly what we wanted to publish and when. Great! Here are the cover pages of the three issues I edited and distributed (with a name change for the third issue since I was told to stop using the school’s abbreviation):

Highlights included: a story about how a new guidance counselor turned out to be better than expected, a story about a “toxic cloud” terrorism drill we had to do, an opinion about the school district’s food policies, a report on an illicit juice box selling operation during a boring outdoor assembly, a gay student’s perspective on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (he even went and talked to a military recruiter), a photo essay about the different kinds of games students played at break, a few poems, and lots of music reviews. Every back page quoted what the the California education code and Los Angeles Unified School District parent-student handbook had to say about student free speech rights. The newspaper was very ordinary, with not even very controversial content. The interesting part was that doing it without permission made our principal very, very angry.

While looking for these old newspaper files, I also found notes from when I called up the school district’s legal office and asked for verification of my right to produce and distribute the newspaper without permission, and asked about whether various school policies fit the district rules (turned out not entirely). I actually found a district administrator who was willing to give at least minimal answers to my questions, as just a random student at one of their zillions of high schools, which surprised me a lot. I didn’t find the nerve to write down all of what they said in the newspaper though. The principal was already upset with me for distributing the newspaper on campus without her permission, and I don’t know what she would have done if she’d found out that I’d called up the district and asked about the legality of her uniform policy.

She was controlling in general, so much that even a lot of teachers weren’t fans of her. One morning after I’d distributed a freshly xeroxed set of newspapers, she decided to go on the intercom and tell the whole school (K-12) that she wasn’t going to let a 17-year-old run her school, in a several-minutes-long speech that didn’t name me but was very clear about how unhappy she was with me and how disrespectful I was. In the few days after that speech, a few teachers quietly found me and told me that they supported the newspaper and thought we were doing good work. I found out that some writing, some friends, and some xeroxing could produce something that made a person with a lot of power over me scared of me.

She’s no longer the principal there, and the high school I graduated from no longer exists. It got transformed into a new school with many of the same teachers but a different focus — and it now has a journalism class with an official school blog written by students! They seem to have fun with it, and I hope they find some way to get dangerous when necessary and learn exciting new things, even if their blog doesn’t get proper free speech protection as a school-sponsored publication. And even if publishing on the web with your name constrains your options in a way that an all-paper newspaper didn’t for me. And even if people can now just make complex Tumblr networks instead of needing to do school-wide communication on visible folded sheets of paper…I’ll hope they’re finding out different and equally powerful lessons that way.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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