Lesson no. 1: Keep Your Mouth Shut

Everything we needed to know about life we learned at University High

Josh stopped me. He put down his pizza, looked at us with uncomfortable directness, and said, "Remember, friendship comes first."

Duh.

Despite all the blathering, The Trojan Kode didn't materialize. We'd agree to meet at my house on Sundays at 4, and then no one would show. Ramy told us to e-mail articles to him, but no one did—not even me. Nothing happened.

Then one day in early December, Josh and I were at school, chewing on glazed doughnuts during break amidst huge crowds of other doughnut munchers. The weather was that crisp wintry light you get just before the holiday break, the kind of light that seems to shine through ice. And then we noticed a commotion. Ramy—6-feet-3-inches, all elbows and sharp angles—was running at us through the crowd.

"Pass this out in your classes," he said breathlessly. He handed us The Trojan Kode—Volume 1, No. 1. Ramy beamed. No time to talk; he was off to work the crowd.

Josh and I read the paper quickly: a hit piece on the administration's policy of liberally handing out Saturday detentions; an A-rating for Tash's new CD, Rap Life; an article asserting that Stanford University—the academic goal of many classmates—was a beer-guzzling hellhole. Right after break, I distributed the two-sided paper in art history and watched the response.

One of two girls sporting near-identical, most-popular threads asked, "Who wrote this?"

A boy in black answered, "Ramy."

The girl said, "What an egomaniac. Who does he think he is, printing his own paper?"

But the boy read on. I'd never seen this kid smile before, but he actually laughed when he read the piece on Saturday detentions. And then I saw him show the paper to a kid next to him.

A month later, the staff of The Trojan Kode gathered in my room, compiling Issue No. 2. I pounded away on an article about a city parcel tax designed to raise money for schools, stopping frequently to listen to the tape of my interview with Irvine Mayor Christina Shea. Josh sat in a corner next to a hamper of dirty laundry, working on an article (sourced largely from the Times) on the hypocrisy of the teachers union investing pension funds in tobacco stocks.

It wasn't clear what Ramy was writing about until he read from the screen of my mom's laptop: "Probe Finds Yearbook Vote Corrupt, Wretched."

We were mystified.

Ramy explained: he'd talked earlier that day with a friend on the yearbook staff. She had told him in confidence about a situation she believed was (in her words) "fucked up." She alleged that a yearbook staffer had ignored a student vote on favorite seniors. Instead, this staffer had placed her friends in the categories like "most likely to succeed" and "biggest flirt." Ramy's informant said the yearbook staff's half-assed response was to order new pictures of the class favorites who actually won and to run them alongside those who won only because they had a friend on yearbook.

Ramy was on fire as he read the story, but Josh and I were nervous. We worried about alienating our student readership, especially since the group we were attacking was the high school über-clique of jocks and cool people. And then there was the whole question of Ramy's source, the girl who had told him all this in confidence. Ramy wasn't planning to give her a heads-up on the story.

We spent most of the rest of that night arguing with Ramy about responsibility and ethics.

At one point, Ramy told us calmly that the paper was his; that we weren't necessary; and that if we didn't like his decisions, he would "find other writers."

We finally reached an agreement. Ramy would remove the word "wretched" from the headline. He would also call his source. A heated phone call between Ramy and the girl ensued. Ramy convinced her the story was a means of fixing a situation she herself had described as "fucked up." She finally agreed, as long as she wasn't named.

It turned out that Ramy's bold move was a masterstroke. Because of the article, everybody knew about the yearbook blunder. Odyssey staff and school administrators were forced to make a move they had tried to avoid. They erased all the old favorites and distributed new ballots.

In soccer practice, our friend Adam said he heard jocks debating—possibly for the first time ever—the ethics of the yearbook vote. That was enough for Adam. He asked if he could write for us.

Our victory seemed complete—until Ramy told us that we were wrong to have confronted him. He said the triumph—his triumph, over corruption in the yearbook, over the "homogenized school culture," over Josh and me—"furnished my balls with an impregnable brass coating."

As the paper gained readership and even respect, we felt emboldened to do bigger things. We created a one-time feature called "Faculty Focus," in which we spotlighted an annoying teacher who had called a student "retarded."

A source on the Associated Student Body (ASB) faxed us a copy of its annual budget, which earmarked a healthy amount of money for parties and activities for ASB staff. When we printed the story, the ASB called an emergency meeting to discredit our article. An ASB official told us we were jerks. This pattern was to be repeated throughout the year: student or teacher reads Trojan Kode, likes it, and lauds rebel students for their guts and moxie—until rebel students write about something student or teacher actually cares about, and then gutsy rebel students are suddenly jerk-faced ingrates.

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