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!


King Dork explains this blog…

I loved Frank Portman’s book King Dork. Tom Henderson, otherwise known as the title character, King Dork, has such a brilliantly cutting view of school and the world. He sees through the BS and the condescension of adults and “normal” students who torture him.  When he declared that all you need to do to ace a high school honors course is be able to make a decent collage, I knew I was in love.  It’s been a few years and The King has returned in King Dork Approximately. I have only started the book (I’m on page 73 of 332), but I didn’t want to wait to post.

King Dork is everything I look for in a Young Adult book and main character. He’s a kid who nobody is fooling. He’s facing serious problems, and is coping through a wicked and irreverent sense of humor and rich fantasy life, and taking bold actions when forced. The fact that he loves music is a fantastic bonus. In the new book, Tom picks up where he left off.

Tom’s situation and standing in his world hasn’t changed, though. He’s a thinker and has a lot of ideas about the world which he shares relentlessly. He presents his “General Theory of the Universe” on page 26. Reading it was one of those great moments for me when I wanted to jump up off my seat and shout ‘YES!’ at the top of my lungs. I refrained from that as I was in my classroom during our silent reading period. I would have not only seriously disrupted my student’s reading, but I might also have given them one more reason to think I’m nuts. Instead I did what I have done before after reading something that rings so true – I ran around school (and then home) and made everyone who happened to make eye contact with me read it. Forcible sharing it was, and I am not sorry. I now share it with you.

 Tom Henderson’s General Theory of the Universe from King Dork Approximately

“That the normal people who attack rock and roll misfits with tubas and put defenseless nerdy kids in garbage cans and throw gum in their hair and tease fat girls into suicidosity et cetera are merely the lowest foot soldiers in an integrated, extremely well-organized totalitarian social structure that extends through the student body, the school system, the city, the state, the country and its entire population and culture as well as those of the whole world, and, ultimately, to nature itself, all organized around a pseudo-Darwinian principle that may best be described as Survival of the Cruelest and the Dumbest, and just barely masked by an increasingly threadbare curtain of pretty lies, which-the curtain of lies, I mean-is most prominently exemplified by this godforsaken hellhole of a book called The Catcher in the Rye.”

YES!!!! This. This is why YA books with real and self aware characters hit me in the gut. The cruelest and the dumbest don’t just go away afte high school.  They go on to be our bosses or co-workers or political leaders and any confrontation with them can go terribly wrong. However, those who recognize the machine and help themselves and others to throw monkey wrenches into it – via rock and roll, protests and demonstrations, and daringly honest criticism of the powers that be – are helping all of us misfits and righting wrongs. Nobody has full constitutional rights as a minor and even less so within the walls of a school building. If we don’t let that crush our spirits, we can keep fighting to disrupt the totalitarian structure and give other misfits hope.

If that rings true to you, then you should sit by me, join the conversation here and run away with the circus — this here blog.

Welcome Tom Henderson to our circus. Freaks like you are our kind of people. You give us hope and let us know that we’re not alone.