When the FNL controversy made the Patch, one day after I read about students at McNair High School in Jersey City who were busted hard for their seemingly innocuous senior prank, and less than a week after my own 5th grader had the traditional fifth grade field day tug-of-war taken away for pervasive disrespectful behavior, I began to wonder if there was something in the air with so many surprised kids struggling with an end of year clash between institutional discipline and student traditions.
It reminded me of my own senior smackdown, still remembered vividly, now over 30 years later. Ours was earlier in the year, at Halloween, when for one glorious day seniors broke all the uniform rules and came to school in costume. At least that was the tradition. But when we marched into the auditorium for morning assembly, we were called out immediately for being out of uniform and other violations: no food in the auditorium (“Eve” was eating an apple); improper footwear (the frog was wearing flippers).
We were shocked. We pleaded tradition and were told that there was no tradition, which was patently absurd; we’d watched with enthusiasm and eager anticipation for at least 6 years. We didn’t think our teachers and administrators were lying; we thought they’d lost their minds. And we were crushed. We just wanted our fun, and for the school community to share in it with us.
Later, when I asked a simpatico teacher and sometime administrator why they did it, and how they could deny there was a tradition, she said that some of our costumes were disruptive and that it was just too much after the previous incident. It took me a minute, and of course none of us had made the connection, but the previous incident was a protest action less than a month before Halloween, also disrupting morning assembly.
We’d never had a health education curriculum and the school had recently decided to remedy that with a lame one-off session on health and nutrition in which the only take away message any of us got was that eating polar bear liver was a bad idea, as it would likely have a toxic concentration of vitamins. We were annoyed, insulted, and aware of a variety of more serious issues among our peers. We argued that a more thoughtful and age appropriate curriculum, including sex ed, was called for. Then, feeling unheard, we decided to stage a “preg-in” to illustrate the urgency of the situation, and one day the majority of the senior class marched in to assembly late, with pillows stuffed under our sweaters. There was quiet consternation and no punishment, as we had apparently not broken any formal rules. But, only weeks later, our Halloween costumes were perceived as less funny and playful than they might have been.
The teacher was not angry, rather she seemed beleaguered and a little hurt by our behavior, a possibility we, in our youthful carelessness, had not considered. I got a sense of our divergent perspectives: us, caught up in our experience in the moment and them, with a larger view of the school community and more attuned to the immediate past and the future.
Ultimately there were two entwined issues at play here: respect and the smooth running of the school. These issues are at play in our current and local examples as well.
At McNair, seniors came to school in pajamas, with alarm clocks, blankets and pillows and planned a scheduled mini-nap and pillow fight. Instead they were found in violation of the dress code and many served in-school suspensions. It sounds sweet and funny to me, and the students’ intentions seem good, but to some school personnel, it was disrespectful and not in keeping with the standards set by this prestigious school. Students, and some parents felt the reaction was overblown, but the students took their lumps and have apparently moved on.
The FNL case at CHS is more complicated and contentious. Because of privacy concerns, we may never get the full accounting some would like. Certainly there were miscommunications at several points, but a couple of things seem clear. After the second performance, there was enough confusion about the appropriateness of some of the material and at least one faculty member had taken offense. The show was no longer a smooth running entertainment event for the school community.
The district cancelled the final performance because (in their words) “it was in the best interest of the school community to disallow a repeat performance on Saturday.” Students and others may or may not agree, but that is the administration’s call. Taking the show off campus, while enterprising, was certainly a tweak to the district’s institutional authority. Consequences for such an action ought not to be surprising. (Small mercies help though: the fifth graders got a chance to earn a do-over, and had a somewhat anti-climactic make up tug-of-war, and the FNL kids who were banned from prom negotiated an alternative consequence.)
The more fundamental issue is respect. It doesn’t really matter who thinks what is funny, or how long the tradition has been running. When any member of the school community feels they are being publically disrespected, school and district officials need to pay attention. No student or group has a right to a pillow fight, a Halloween dress up day, or even a planned public performance if it doesn’t conform to the school’s values and purposes, or if it risks harming mutual respect in the school community.
None of this was handled brilliantly by anyone involved, and probably by Thursday the damage was already done, but standing by for another performance under the circumstances would have been worse. No one likes a smackdown, but I learned more from mine than I would have from a successful senior Halloween. I learned to see my actions from another point of view, I learned something about the teachers’ and administrators’ commitment to our school and our educations, and I learned some things both about limits and about the power of collective action.
We all want our kids to cherish happy memories of their school days, and we hurt with and for them when those memories turn sour, but sometimes these experiences are part of the education school and life provides them.
I hope when the dust settles on this one, we can all learn a few things from it.