TOKYO, February 22, 2012 - When I was in high school, the principal called me to his office a couple of times to reprimand me and threaten me with suspension. My crimes? Well, one time I played a prank on a new teacher, a young woman fresh out of college who was eager to introduce me to the works of Shakespeare when I was more interested in reading Mills and Boon romance novels. I noticed she did not wear a watch to school. To tell the time, she relied on the clock hanging on the wall above the blackboard.
That was when I hatched my master plan. I moved the clock forward by thirty minutes, did the same with my watch, and instructed all my classmates to follow my example. As soon as the new teacher walked in, I raised my hand to ask a question that I knew the answer to, just to ensure she didn’t look at the clock and notice the difference in the time.
Our classes lasted ninety minutes each session, and after an hour of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I called her attention to the clock. She was surprised at how time flew. Incredulous, she asked to check my watch, and that of the girl sitting next to me. Convinced, she dismissed the class.
We all rushed to the cafeteria, glad to have an extra thirty minutes of break. Word of my success spread like wild fire amongst the students, and I walked into my next class glowing with triumph only to be told by the teacher to go straight to the principal’s office. I was given a stern warning, and made to apologize to the poor hapless newbie teacher.
Another time, I earned an afternoon sitting in the detention corner of the high school office when I pretended to cheat. That’s right, I wasn’t actually cheating, I was only pretending. I purposely attracted attention to myself during a test, furtively glancing at a “crib sheet” in my lap. When the teacher demanded to see what I was looking at, I surprised her with a crumpled piece of paper that was totally blank.
Basically, I was a troublemaker. Knowing firsthand just how mischievous a teenager can be, I went through Maia’s high school years always half-expecting to hear from the principal about Maia’s wrongdoings.
But Maia was different from me. She did not need the attention that came with foolish pranks. Aside from having friends and a balanced social life, she was a good student who had all the things that good students had: a high GPA, leadership positions, medals and trophies for excellence in extra-curricular activities, and a much-coveted seat in the National Honor Society.
After a while, I started to relax. I was certain that Maia would complete high school without ever earning the disapproval of the principal. Which is why I was greatly surprised when Maia came home one afternoon, announcing that she had been called in to the principal’s office for writing an article that was too controversial. It was so controversial, the school banned the entire magazine!
I knew which article she was talking about. I had read it before Maia handed it in for publication. In fact, I had encouraged her to write it, even though I was well aware that the subject was controversial and was a cause of friction not only amongst students, but between the school administration and parents.
So what topic was so controversial that the school censored it?
The National Honor Society and its selection process.
Maia was one of the few students who gained admission to NHS in her sophomore year, and still she felt that the selection process was unfair, not to mention far from transparent. She felt strongly about students never knowing the reasons they were accepted or rejected. The admissions seemed arbitrary, but were never justified or explained. When she floated the idea, in her junior year, of voicing her opinion in an essay for the school magazine, I nodded in agreement, but I also advised her to give copies of her essay to the teachers responsible for the school magazine and the NHS prior to publication.
With Maia’s article on page 6, the magazine went on sale during lunch. However, the school administrators told the students hawking the magazine to stop immediately, and to return all unsold copies to the high school office. The order did not come soon enough, however. A few copies were sold, and as soon as the students learned that the magazine was banned, they obviously started clamoring for copies. As any parent of will tell you, if you want your child to do something, you have to tell them that they can’t have it.
Maia spent the next few days in what she described as “a medieval interrogation,” getting pulled out of class and forced into a seat across from the principal. The principal advised her, strongly, to retract her opinions, and each time she adamantly refused to do so. At the end of each of these days, she came home completely exhausted, often bursting into tears, and expressed disappointment at seeing the ugly underbelly of the school she had, until then, been proud to attend.
I could have gone to school to protest, but instead I called the principal to ask for his version of the story. The principal told me that members of the faculty were disappointed with Maia, and that she was in danger of losing an award for which she was being considered. After that conversation, I wrote a letter to say that while I always made suggestions to Maia, she made her own decisions, and her course of action in the current controversy would be 100% her decision.
The teacher who was most disappointed in Maia was the NHS adviser. His view was that Maia had written a condemning article about a process she didn’t know enough about. Maia countered that that was exactly the problem. She said she didn’t know enough about the selection process because she couldn’t. It was all shrouded in what Maia described, in her article, as a “veil of secrecy,” But what if that veil could be lifted?
In the end, Maia compromised by agreeing to write another essay, which would be included as a loose-leaf insert in the magazine. But she was insistent that it would not be a retraction. Instead, she demanded that she give her full access to the faculty members who evaluated the NHS applications – teachers whose identities were never revealed.
I was honestly surprised that Maia was trusted to keep confidential the identities of the teachers she interviewed. I was even more surprised that the principal did not protest when Maia declared she would not accept any edits or redactions in her second essay. It was certainly proof of his willingness to work with students, and respect for young minds.
After interviewing the secret faculty members, Maia sat down to write her essay right after dinner, and did not leave her seat in front of the computer until way past midnight, long after her usual bedtime of nine-thirty. Every once in a while I went to ply her with milk and cookies, and I saw her labor over each and every sentence, trying to choose the right exact words.
When she was done, she called me to read the final draft. She was not asking for my approval. She was keeping me informed, and after I was duly informed, she struck the “send” key. The next day, the magazine sold out.
Eventually, the controversy died down. Maia went back to being a straight-arrow, well-behaved student with a pristine record. The NHS adviser who had been so disappointed in her slanderous journalism ended up becoming her calculus teacher in senior year and, in a surprising turn of events, a terrific mentor. When Maia was accepted into her top-choice colleges, he was the first to congratulate her. And when she struggled to decide which one to attend, he was the one she went to for advice.
It was the first and last time Maia ever did not toe the line.
She certainly doesn’t take after me.
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