Had I gone through middle school today, rather than during the dark ages of the 1970’s, there’s a good chance I would have been expelled, or quite possibly even imprisoned or institutionalized. Oh, not for anything I actually did, but for what I wrote.
By sixth grade I had left juvenile fiction behind, plunging headlong into the books that lined my parents shelves. I devoured authors and their oeuvres whole, starting with Kurt Vonnegut and moving on to J.P. Dunleavy, Philip Roth, and J.D. Salinger, before an astute clerk at a local bookstore directed me to the short stories of Harlan Ellison and a decade long passion for “speculative fiction.” I’m not sure I understood all of what I read — in fact, from subsequent re-readings, I know I didn’t — but there’s no doubt these authors had a huge impact on me and my writing, especially the numerous short stories I churned out between seventh and ninth grades, most of which remained unread by any eyes but my own.
I’d always had a taste for the absurd and the macabre, and inspired by the likes of Vonnegut and Ellison (not to mention the adolescent hormones running through my veins) my own stories sometimes tended toward the violent and the bizarre. While some stories were more mundane, others dwelled on murder, suicide and meticulously descriptive narrative of gruesome deaths, all juxtaposed against the banal routines of everyday life… in short, the ravings of an obviously disturbed child.
Except, I wasn’t disturbed. At least no more than your typical, suburban 14-year-old. No, in retrospect, what I was engaging in was a healthy cathartic outlet in which I could channel all my frustration, rage, depression, confusion, mania and whatever into brutal but harmless fiction.
But had my stories been discovered by school authorities in today’s paranoid climate — say, the one in which I imagined the intricate, Rube Goldberg-like demise of a hated teacher, or the one in which a seemingly happy and popular student unexpectedly lights fire to the locker room, with the football team locked inside — you can just imagine the response. Good chance the courts would be involved, as would the press, who would surely sensationalize the lucky prevention of another Columbine. Yet all I did — all I ever did — was imagine the worst, and put it down on paper. And in most cases, I wasn’t even imagining myself in the perpetrators’ shoes.
In his collection of short stories titled Shatterday, Ellison rails against the tendency of readers and critics to assume autobiographical hints, explaining that “writers take tours through other people’s lives.” Likewise, it wasn’t me who performed the horrific acts I chronicled, or who even wanted to perform them, it was my characters.
And in Roth’s The Ghost Writer, a character has tacked above his desk Gustave Flaubert’s advice to a young writer: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” This is advice that has stuck with me throughout my adult life, and which has been most fully realized in this blog, much to the consternation and confusion of my trolls and other readers who apparently lack the imagination and/or nuance to distinguish between the writer and his words.
At the time, I shared little of my most violent work, not because I feared how adults might react, but because I rightly feared that it wasn’t very good. (It wasn’t. I stumbled on one of my old notebooks a few years back, and found the stories to be overly ambitious and profoundly derivative.) But it never occurred to me that I might actually get in trouble for something I imagined; in fact I handed in the story about a teacher’s elaborate death to the teacher on which the main character was clearly based, and while he didn’t particularly like it, the only consequence I suffered was a rather middling grade.
Which brings me, convolutely, to the inspiration for this post, the news that Seattle Public Schools has established a new policy in which they can discipline students for content posted to public sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, “even if done at home on their private computers.”
“The safety of our students and the security of our students is our first concern,” said Teresa Wippel with Seattle Public Schools.
Wippel says the Seattle School Board voted yes for the measure so schools can respond to kids who may be planning something on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or by texting that will be disruptive.
But, what exactly is disruptive?
Wippel says, for example, a threat to fight another student after school, or bullying another student would be considered disruptive. But what if it’s a student saying something negative about a teacher? Is that free speech or is that disruptive?
“I think, again, that would be up to the principal to decide after he’s taken a look,” Wippel said.
So… is lovingly describing a teacher’s slow, excruciating death “disruptive”? I guess under the Seattle Schools new policy, that would be up to the principal to decide. In other words, hello Juvenile Detention.
But this new policy offends the child in me at a more fundamental, less paranoid level, for what is being presented as an anti-bullying measure is at it’s heart an assertion that children have no rights — no right to free speech, no right to free expression — even when exercised off campus. And since the determination of what is offensive, inappropriate or disruptive is somewhat subjective, individual principals will surely enforce this policy in a somewhat subjective and arbitrary manner… a particularly disturbing development in a world where so much speech now takes place online.
Take, for example, my own 13-year-old daughter, who has recently become an obsessive writer of fan fiction on a particularly bloody series of Japanese manga. She spends hours upon hours writing and rewriting new chapters before posting her work to FanFiction.net, where she is instantly rewarded with numerous comments and critiques. It is a medium that is as educational as it is gratifying, permitting her to hone her craft via constant and immediate feedback. I wish I had that opportunity when I was her age.
But what if a school official were to stumble upon her work and be shocked or offended by the violence she portrays, or the foul language that is common in the genre but totally inappropriate at school? What if the principal discovered that other students were joining in, writing reviews of my daughter’s fan fiction, and adding equally violent and foul-mouthed chapters of their own? What if the principal feared this activity was disruptive?
Fan fiction, like blogging, is an online, participatory medium… one in which you cannot engage without making your writing public. Surely I cannot warn my daughter to think twice before posting, out of fear of how teachers and principals might overreact, for how can any artist learn her craft while constantly looking over her shoulders? Of course, she can’t.
But that is the message the Seattle School Board is sending to all its students in enunciating its new, intrusive policy. It is one thing to develop policies to patrol and discourage bullying, but nobody benefits when these same policies are inevitably used to discourage free expression.
Yes, I know, the Supreme Court has repeatedly weighed in on this issue and determined that minors do not enjoy the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and that yes, School officials can discipline students for expression that occurs off campus. But that doesn’t mean they should.