School Climate & Safety Opinion

Reason and Rebellion

By Frances G. Wills — July 25, 2008 6 min read
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In June, the district I serve as superintendent of schools found itself the center of media attention because of a “mooning” incident at graduation. Video of one of our graduating seniors dropping his pants before a stunned audience at the ceremony was replayed thousands of times on YouTube, became the butt of jokes (pardon the pun) on news shows, and was the topic of numerous editorial opinions. Because of decency regulations, the image shown on TV had the boy’s bare bottom discreetly whited out, making it appear that he was wearing underwear. I can tell you, as an up-front eyewitness, he was not.

This was a first for me in my 40 years as an educator. Of course, superintendents learn to assume that the next incident they’ll be called on to handle will probably be a first. Much of what happens in schools—or in any organization of people, young or old—is unprecedented, regardless of due diligence or efforts at prevention. What we have some control over is our response.

My fellow administrators across the country probably were not laughing when they saw the videotape. Most of them were thinking about copycats, and how to make sure this didn’t happen in their own schools. Perhaps a few, amused by my misfortune, were thinking it would never happen in theirs. Schadenfreude is alive and well.

Our high school principal handled the situation well on stage. After the visual shock, we moved on to complete the ceremony, so that the program would remain orderly and the students who had not yet received their diplomas could be recognized. (Fortunately, the name of the young perpetrator fell near the end of the alphabet.) The glowing and inspiring speeches of valedictorian, salutatorians, honored teacher, and school officials had already been made, the moving performances of the chorus and jazz ensemble were over. Thus, with the dropping of drawers, the abyss was revealed, then quickly covered over. What was left was abject embarrassment and a sense of deflation, of ruefulness for those who witnessed this debacle.

Then came the question of what to do, how to respond. There is a backstory to this incident, of course. Rumors had circulated throughout the high school that the boy was going to cause “an event” at graduation, so there clearly was forethought to his actions. The boy was spoken to by our dean of students just as he started up the stairs to the stage. He was requested politely not to do anything inappropriate. The warning was unavailing.

The context is indeed everything. The residents of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., choose to live in the district in part because we provide, by all measures, an excellent public education. We also have tuition-paying students from nearby districts who attend ours because of what we offer. Our students are generally thoughtful and intelligent, and have taken on responsibility for their school community and beyond.

Briarcliff High School was the first in the region to require community service in the 1970s, for example, and has always been open to student voices and ideas. There are many forums for expression, in many media: music, drama, art, literature, and news. Original work and commentary are valued and recognized. Students and faculty members are now in the planning stages for a march in September to bring awareness to the horrors of Darfur.

An incident such as what happened here in June is a kind of mirror, I believe. It can be seen differently by every viewer. For parents of the young graduates, it is a ugly stain on the dream of a perfect evening. So much effort, care, time, resources, and human aspiration culminate in the high school graduation ceremony, especially in a district where students have great expectations and teachers do everything possible to ensure that learning and achievement are attained. This year, our district’s graduation rate is 100 percent; that means that the needs of each individual student have been scrupulously addressed. Every student earned a high school diploma, 72 percent with advanced standing in the New York State Regents examinations. Ninety-seven percent of our 158 graduates will attend college.

I believed that any response to the incident from the district had to respect that sense of purpose, and the value placed on the educational journey. While the young man’s diploma could not be withheld, we had hoped for community service as a prerequisite to his receiving it. But that was not permitted. As an adult, and no longer a student, he remained a person who had violated the decency of the public square by exposing himself. So I felt the justice system was the appropriate venue for consequences to be determined.

Among the public at large, the viewers of YouTube, and the editors of the local TV station and newspaper (not to mention the national pundits), there was a sense that we had overreacted. Some people seemed to feel that this sort of “rebellion,” as they called it, should not necessarily be discouraged. Since the student had not “killed anyone,” they reasoned, the act amounted to little or nothing at all. Those viewers and commentators probably were reading the situation through the lens of their own experience, and coming down on the side of the rebel. I was told to “lighten up” (among other, more graphic prescriptions). Perhaps, the commentators suggested, the disrespect accorded our teachers, fellow graduates, parents, and the community was not worthy of a response at all.

I can’t go there. If I do, then I abrogate my belief that schools and public education are cornerstones of the public good, that teachers merit honor and are endowed with the responsibility to guide each generation to cultural literacy and a sense of what is right and wrong, and that I, as a leader of this community, must strive to protect these values.

To those who feel that rebellion is high art, I would suggest that an act of rebellion must necessarily come with a price and serve a serious cause. Or else it is only an act of indecent exposure. This is not a case of Milton’s rebellious angel. And please don’t compare the “mooning” to the acts of our Founding Fathers or more-recent protestors who concluded that their institutions were complicit in the devastation in Vietnam or the evils of apartheid. The ugly act that jolted the Briarcliff community was just that, an ugly act with meaning only to the young man.

I have come to believe that as a society we’ve developed a schizophrenic reaction to the value of education. There is an anti-intellectual streak vying with the exhortations of “no child left behind” and the rhetoric of school reform. Those who stand up for an educated citizenry are often mocked as elitists, or worse. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times cited the continual tension in our nation between “reason and rebellion.” That continuum informed the varying responses to this act.

One could argue that comedy and satire are valuable efforts to pull down those who assert themselves at either end of the reason-rebellion dialogue. That creative tension informs our democracy. There are places for comedy and satire, and there usually is a purpose. Those who choose to make a statement with their bodies at a ceremony that has a unique personal meaning for those who gather as a community to participate should expect to pay the price, however. The rest of us who witness the event will try to find a way to “delete” the memory.

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Reason and Rebellion

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