Freedom of Expression – Just Not at School

One of the problems with being a teen and a student is that your freedom is so limited, if you have any at all.  So many writers, musicians and filmmakers talk about the journals they kept as teens and how they kept them for ages before sharing them with the world.  Traditional publishing was inaccessible to teenagers and few had a way to find an audience for their message or their art outside of the restrictive world of their school.

I remember distinctly the Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. Supreme Court case in 1988.  The basics of the decision were that school newspapers were not forums for student expression and therefore, students did not have the right to free speech.  Their “speech” could be censored legally by school officials. I was on my high school newspaper staff in 1988 and I was outraged. Like most 17 year olds, moral outrage was one of my best skills.  I attended a student journalist conference in Washington DC that summer and got together with students from many different states and we all wallowed in our collective outrage. Seventeen is the precipice of freedom. I was headed to college the next fall and I was ready to make my own decisions. Saying what you think and exposing injustices was exactly what a student run school newspaper was for and now the nine old people in the Supreme Court had told us officially that we had no right to say what we thought.  Outrage on top of outrage was the result.  Outrage and gnashing of teeth, but no action. It was frustrating and left us all feeling helpless and impotent.  We just had to wait a year or two until we magically became adults and could say what we wanted.

As a teacher, I see all the restrictions that are placed on schools in attempting to “guide” students. Another list of “don’ts” for the young people!  The message is, “We want you to become productive citizens who are able to think critically, as long as you do it through an approved format within these restrictive formats on only these topics. Oh, and if you could do it in a horrifyingly boring five paragraph essay, that would be great.” I don’t know where these rules originate.  How is it we’re surprised that teens don’t feel confident enough to express themselves creatively, forcefully or thoughtfully?

All this is thankfully counterbalanced by brilliant, thoughtful and daring teens who are expressing themselves through the freedom that exists outside of school through the magic of the internet.  Their ability to craft a message to their peers and the world is noteworthy because it reaches a broad audience outside of school.  My favorite example of such a person is Nathan Zelalem.  I’ve followed Nathan for almost four years now through his youtube channel ‘The Third Pew.’  He’s my second favorite member of the Zelalem family. His sister Salem is my Young Adult reading guide and great friend. She is the greatest.  Nathan’s videos are funny, thoughtful and well crafted. They are also messages that would get made within a school.  No teacher, club sponsor or principal that I know of would facilitate or encourage the freedom that Nathan’s parents have given him. While it’s disappointing to think that school is so restrictive, it’s also thrilling to think that there are teens like Nathan out there saying what they want to say the way they want to say without the restrictions of a classroom.

Here’s one of my favorite of Nathan’s videos:

There are teens out there speaking the truth, kicking butt and making the world better.  We need to keep looking for them and encouraging them to speak out. With the standardization of testing and testing and testing permeating all parts of students’ lives, those who have the guts and the work ethic to speak out need our support and encouragement if they’re going to survive and having the courage to say what they think without restrictions from adults. Team truth!

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