The cafeteria was filled with about 200 students. The Northwest High School principal sat in the rear; stretching to either side of him were faculty and staff.
Despite the size of the audience, Matt Davis was not intimidated. An Arlington High School senior, he had been invited by an AmeriCorps volunteer to be part of a panel discussion on music and media, but no one else had showed up. Nonetheless, he began his speech with his signature lead, a poem “to get everybody’s minds going.”
“Seven-five-one-zero-eight, that is my student ID number, and at times that seems to be all they know me by is those five numbers and nothing else…”
Matt didn’t get a chance to say much else before Principal Larry Yarrell approached and took the microphone from him. Matt was told to sit down.
The crowd was getting loud. As Matt returned to the table where his jacket laid, a student held a camera phone in his face. He responded by showing a clenched fist. “Everybody started cheering ‘You-you-you-you,” he said.
Police appeared, and Matt was led outside.
According to the First Amendment of the Constitution, Congress “shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Yet, speaking out is abridged all the time, especially for young people. This topic has been the cause for much debate and discussion. It has even been the subject of many novels and other publications.
Author Gordon Korman is a prolific writer for children who has addressed this issue. In “No More Dead Dogs,” his protagonist is Wallace Wallace, an eighth-grader who insists on telling the truth no matter whom it hurts. In efforts to make him change his opinion regarding a story he hates, his teacher makes him attend play rehearsal until he “comes to his senses.”
Similarly, Edward Irving Wortis, better known as Avi, has written scores of novels for children and young adults. In “Nothing But the Truth,” Avi deals with the issue of free expression in high school. His protagonist, Philip, keeps humming during the National Anthem. When the teacher reprimands him, he refuses to admit that he was wrong, and the entire incident turns into a political hot topic that result in the teacher being suspended.
Both authors agree that free speech is uniquely problematic for minors.
“I think that we live in a culture that says two things. It says that a child is a child, legally and experientially, that is to say they don’t have the experiences of an adult and that young people and older people are not equal in the sense of equal rights,” Avi said.
At the same time, young people have unique rights, he continued.
“They need to be protected. They need to be heard. But it has to be done in a way that is always a measure of mutual respect.”
Korman says the trouble with respect is that it is a subjective term, and either side can be quick to take offense. In addition, he said, adults sometimes take offense when youth speak in a way that surprises them. “I think a lot of adults believe in kids speaking out, but in practice, I think that they cannot escape their expectations of the opinions that they expect kids to have,” he said.
At Northwest High School, it appears both issues were at play: While Matt felt that his rights were abridged and he was treated with disrespect, the situation seemed very different to Principal Larry Yarrell, who says he was blindsided by Matt’s presence.
According to Yarrell, he was expecting a teen summit in which Northwest students were to speak out, but instead a young man he didn’t recognize stood up and began to read a poem which, to Yarrell, seemed “racist and raunchy.”
“He began to talk about white people, and he began to talk about their devils and just blasting them,” Yarrell said. “I immediately walked up to him and took the microphone and made him leave.”
Yarrell explained that Matt was evicted not only because of the poem but because he didn’t know Matt and didn’t give him permission to be in the school.
“No one in the administration had any idea that he was coming. He was not a part of our original format, our original program,” Yarrell said. “I have to make sure that I do the right thing as the leader of the school. I have to make sure that I do the right thing as an administrator. I have to make sure that I protect all people’s rights.”
Clearly, miscommunication caused great confusion for both parties: Yarrell didn’t expect to see someone from outside the school at the summit, and Matt believed Yarrell had been informed that he would be there. Then, upon hearing the introduction to Matt’s poem, which includes the line “the public school system was designed for white males,” Yarrell stepped in to stop what he thought would be a disruptive racist rant.
On the other hand, Matt says his poem, which includes a few racial references but is in no way raunchy, was misinterpreted. It expresses his frustration with a school system that, he says, fails to see or treat students – particularly minority students – as individuals.
“Like if he would’ve let me finish and then came to me afterwards, like ‘Let’s have constructive dialogue,’ you know what I’m saying? If you really want to impart some of your wisdom on me, which you’re not ’cause you’re in the wrong, but if you want to, then that’s fine. You can talk to me on that level, but don’t come and disrespect me and disrespect the entire student body,” Matt said.
Yarrell said he acted as he did because he was entirely unaware of Matt or his poem. The fact that both of them found themselves in an unexpected situation added fuel to the fire.
Avi emphasized the importance of remaining calm in a dispute if both sides hope to have a productive conversation.
“I think that when people have disagreements or want to speak out, the first thing that must be there is politeness and respect for the other person,” he said. “If an adult puts down a kid, or a kid puts down an adult, you’re not going to have a discussion, right? You’re just going to get insulting behavior, and that can come from both sides.”
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Matt Flood, 14; Samantha Swan, 14.
REPORTERS: Naomi Farahan, 12; Ellen Flood, 12; Adam Friedman, 12; Priya Mirmira, 12;
Rushi Patel, 11; Jade Poynter, 11.
Copyright 2009 Y-Press