Censorship gets out of hand at a small school in Alabama. One of the pieces in my portfolio that got me into the Iowa Young Writer's Program!
It was a Wednesday when Claire Smith’s homeroom teacher handed her a folded piece of paper on Bayside stationery. Curious, she unfolded the paper and read the quickly scrawled note inside: come to my office during you’re study hall. We need to talk about the newspaper. It was signed by the Headmaster. Claire frowned at the note. It wasn’t the fact that she had gotten a note from the headmaster that was strange; she went to a small private school where the headmaster was on a first name basis with all of his students. No, that wasn’t what bothered her. He had misspelled ‘your’. Or rather, used the homophone. She sighed; grammar truly is an underappreciated art.
So, note in hand, Claire left her third period study hall and headed towards the old antebellum house in the middle of campus that served as the school office. After smiling awkwardly and waving at the receptionist who looked up from her paperback romance as Claire passed, Claire knocked on the door bearing the small gold sign that read ‘Mr. Timothy Jackson, Headmaster.’
“Hey, er, Hello, Mr. Jackson, it’s Claire,” Claire announced as she knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Mr. Jackson called back in his slow South Georgia drawl.
Claire opened the door and went into his office. Mr. Jackson, a man in his fifties with an impressive moustache, was leaning back in the chair behind his desk.
“Sit down, Claire,” he nodded at the chair across from his desk.
Confused as to why she was in the office in the first place, Claire sat in the chair.
“Do you know why you’re here, Claire?” Mr. Jackson asked in his heavy southern twang.
“Something about the newspaper?”
Mr. Jackson didn’t answer.
“You’re the editor of the school paper, aren’t you?” Mr. Jackson asked, leaning forward so his forearms and folded hands were on his desk.
“Yes…” Claire said, squinting her eyes and tilting her head. What could that have to do with anything?
“You’ve done a fine job this year, a fine job. Never has the newspaper been done so well.”
“I try,” Claire shrugged and couldn’t help but to smirk. The newspaper had just won a local award for best school periodical. That was going to look great on her college resume.
“But, I do have a problem with this month’s addition,” Mr. Jackson took one of the rough copies of the newspaper that was given to the teachers before publishing from his desk and slid it towards Claire.
Claire raised one eyebrow. She couldn’t remember having cleared anything even slightly controversial. She had, of course, received quite a few things that were inappropriate, mostly editorials from freshmen who obviously didn’t have enough homework to do, but she was too proud of the ‘editor in chief’ title that was going on her college resume to print anything like that.
“Really?” Claire asked, picking up the newspaper and thumbing through it.
“Yes, more specifically, I have a problem with the story you have on page three, in the ‘Regional’ section.”
“Oh,” Claire nodded fondly, that was one of the stories that she had written, “Yeah, the story about the woman who had her hands bitten off by a shark but overcame her disability to play piano.”
“Yes, can you see the problem now?”
“No…not at all. I thought this woman’s story was pretty inspirational. I went and met her when she found out I was writing about her. She’s really something. Really inspiring. Plays fantastic Chopin.”
“But you don’t see the problem with this article?”
“No, not at all.”
Mr. Jackson sighed, “I guess I’m going to have to spell it out for you,” he stood up and started to pace in front of the window that faced the courtyard between the classroom buildings, “Claire…I don’t know if it’s just my opinion, I have yet to confer with the teachers on this matter, but I just don’t feel comfortable with you doing an article that…well, that involves a reference to…to hands.”
“Hands?” Claire had to stop herself from laughing.
“Yes,” Mr. Jackson seemed to be physically pained from the awkwardness he imagined in the situation, “Hands.”
Claire took at deep breath to stop from laughing, “Why do you have a problem with me talking about hands?”
“Why wouldn’t I have a problem with hands seems like the more prudent question!” he paused, ran his hands though his moustache and studied Claire, “But if you really can’t see my problem, I must tell you, hands are simply not appropriate for a school newspaper.”
“Why? I mean, we use our hands to make the newspaper; you know, to type it and edit it and deliver it.”
“I realize that, hands do many good things, but I just don’t think that they are an appropriate topic for a newspaper…”
“They’re not really the topic,” Claire cut in, “the woman is the topic. She just happens to have lost her hands. So basically it’s an article about not having hands…”
“Be that as it may,” Mr. Jackson interrupted, “hands are responsible for almost all crime in the world. Hands pull the trigger on guns, hands can strangle people, and hands can even make…” he paused and sighed, “inappropriate gestures.”
“I suppose,” Claire admitted, not really believing a word of it.
“I’m glad you see it my way, Ms. Smith,” Mr. Jackson said, sighing and plopping back down into his chair.
“So, hypothetically, if I were to write this article about a woman with a missing nose instead of missing hands it would be deemed, by you of course, to be strictly appropriate?” Claire knew that she shouldn’t be doing it, but she wanted to test this man’s limits for her own amusement.
Mr. Jackson practically gasped, “No, goodness no. If we don’t allow hands we most certainly can’t allow noses.”
Claire waited for an explanation, and she wasn’t disappointed.
“You can smell bad things with a nose, and we don’t want to imply anything unpleasant in any of our publications. If we do that, people may be disgusted, or even offended. And then we start to lose donations from important people and the school starts to backslide.”
“Mmmhhmmm,” Claire murmured, “Is there any body part I can mention in the newspaper?”
Mr. Jackson seemed to think long and hard about that question. He tugged on his moustache and looked at the ceiling above his desk before replying slowly, “No, I’m afraid not. There are simply too many implications with the various parts of the human body.”
“So we’re supposed to start writing really ethereal, intellectual articles about ideas? You know, philosophy and politics and stuff,” Claire couldn’t wait to hear the answer.
Yet again, Mr. Jackson gasped, “Heavens no! If there is anything worse than the human body it is definitely thoughts! No thought ever pleases every person! And we can’t risk that, certainly, we can’t risk that. We can’t offend anyone. No one…” he trailed off.
Claire had to swallow slowly a few times and close her eyes to keep from laughing, “Then, Mr. Jackson, what do you propose we are to write about?” she asked in the most serious tone she could muster.
Mr. Jackson yet again seemed to be deeply contemplating the issue. His hand stroked his moustache more fervently. But, yet again, he came up with an answer: “Perhaps we should postpone this edition of the paper. You’ve made me think, Ms. Smith, you’ve brought up some good points. Perhaps this writing thing is a little too offensive for the students and their parents. I believe I need some time to discuss this matter with the teachers.”
“You’re disbanding the paper?” Claire asked, seeing the Harvard acceptance letter slipping away from her in her mind with the blank space on her application where ‘editor’ would have gone.
“Yes, I believe so. Perhaps I should also talk to the English teachers…”
“Do you need me for anything else?”
“No, you may go,” he was starting to scrawl what looked like a plan onto a legal notebook. As Claire was leaving he seemed to realize what he was creating by writing and dropped his pen in disgust, “Wait, Claire…could you please remove the plaque from my door…I don’t want people to get the wrong ideas. I have no idea what sort of questionable things my name could bring to mind. The last thing I want to do is offend an alumni, that’s how schools like this go under; they don’t get enough donations…yes, indeed. Remove the sign.”
Claire left the room and closed the door behind her. She sighed and ran her hands though her hair as she slid the plaque off of its holder on the door. She crossed the reception area until she reached the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist was now munching on a granola bar and thumbing through her romance novel, which Claire now saw sported an unrealistically buff man with a Claymore on the front cover. Without saying anything, Claire put Mr. Jackson’s sign down on the desk. The secretary looked up at Claire and sighed:
Claire nodded and started to walk out of the office, behind her she could hear the secretary mumbling:
“Every year…every year when we need contributions it’s the same thing… …well, I better go talk to him…I’m surprised he even keeps that plaque on his door…”