Lesson no. 1: Keep Your Mouth Shut

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

My proudest moment came in a story we wrote about the school's treatment of its 110 deaf students. Interviews with the students revealed that they were often left out of the loop on school events—dances, for instance—and didn't have equal access to ASB funds.

We learned the hearing-impaired students had submitted proposals to the program's principal for an autonomous hearing-impaired student government. But in four months, the idea hadn't even been brought up at a faculty meeting.

The Trojan Kode printed an article on the subject, informing both hearing and nonhearing kids about it. The article galvanized the hearing-impaired community, which hosted a forum a week later. More than 30 hearing-impaired students and half a dozen advisers attended. A September date was set for a faculty discussion on the matter. Meanwhile, there was growing resentment from The Sword and Shield, which was angry that its readership was falling; an independent survey conducted by a political science class found that 56 percent of the student body preferred The Trojan Kode. Comparatively, The Sword and Shield's 24 percent barely beat out "no preference" at 20 percent. Someone (we learned later it was The Sword and Shield staffers) posted hundreds, maybe a thousand fliers around campus—papering the bathrooms, carpeting the walkways, and greeting us at the entrance to every classroom. In an unmistakable bold font, they read, "Ramy, Aaron, Adam, Josh and the rest of you guys . . . Shame on the Trojan Kode for infesting UHS with lies and insults." Ever heard the saying "no publicity is bad publicity"? For underground papers, bad publicity is the best publicity. Our standing soared. Others took note. There was a sudden outpouring of semilegal zines and newsletters venting barely contained rage. Some jocks came out with The Special Elephant—don't ask; I have no idea—with pieces attacking one of our writers as a "lobotomized yak" and tips on "How to Successfully Execute a 45-Second Keg Stand." Some of our friends thought it was vulgar. We were its biggest fans. We hit the Web. Ramy got us I registered, hosted it with Hiway, and built a website where people could check out past issues and submit story ideas. The first e-mail we received told us that our website was shitty. They offered to help fix it, but after they insulted my site, I really didn't like them that much. So I called my childhood friend Jared Johnson, who built websites for fun, and asked him to help out. We were popular. We were influential. We were making a difference. We were knights in shining frigging armor. Things were going exactly as we had planned. Except that bit about friendship. February. I was sitting on a cement block outside my English class while my teacher pored over a highlighted copy of Trojan Kode No. 3 and a smallish grade book. She then began a 10-minute lecture on libel. The highlighted section was my article "Cheerleaders Forced to Make Baked Goods for Male Athletes: Sexist?!?" I had interviewed athletes, cheerleaders and the cheer coach—who was, coincidentally, my English teacher. She fingered the word "claimed." "Claimed," she said. She looked up and stared at me and then read from the Trojan Kode: "She also claimed that cheerleaders are not forced to bake, rather they only do so to work off demerits." I mumbled, "I don't think it's meant to reflect negatively upon you." She read on. The article alleged that Uni cheerleaders were required to bake cookies for male athletes and that failure to do so could result in grade docks. She clawed at her book and turned it page by page, showing me marks next to girls' names. She insisted that none of the marks were for failure to bake cookies and cupcakes for male athletes. I noted an unlabeled tally under one girl's name. What was that for? Missing practice, she said. "Missing practice for what?" I asked. "A concert," she said. She seemed to have her facts straight. I asked about others on that page and others on other pages; different events and times and misconducts, she replied. "But a cheerleader has never been given a demerit for not baking cookies," she asserted. "That would be ridiculous." I went back to class, sat down, pulled out a Trojan Kode from my binder, and looked it over. Ramy and I had finished writing the article a couple of nights before. I was really worried it might offend my teacher, so I had tried to make sure every detail was accurate and the language reasonable. But by midnight, I was sleepy. I told Ramy my concerns—we were dealing with my English teacher here—and we agreed that besides minor grammatical changes, he would alter nothing. I went to sleep. Ramy stayed at the computer. After English class, I rushed home to check the version I had saved on disk before handing it to Ramy. Words like "said" had been turned into "claimed"; whole lines had been added. The sentence "Demerits are issued for failure to feed the appointed players, resulting in lowered grades" was inserted into my story. I called Ramy, told him about my teacher, and asked him where he found out about the demerits. He said some cheerleader told him in passing. I told him our friendship was more important to me than the Trojan Kode, and this kind of thing was straining it. I told him the article said negative things about my teacher. I pointed out that I had interviewed her, and he hadn't. I emphasized that he had screwed things up for me. He told me I shouldn't have interviewed her if I was worried about my grades, that the cheerleading coach was a "Decepticon, and you are a gullible fool." Adam told me later that Ramy had said the phone call persuaded him that I had a psychological problem and needed help. Ramy told me later he had merely "naively responded to an emotional situation with rational arguments" and that, in retrospect, he wished he had done things differently. I'm still not sure what he meant. I am sure that it was about this time I began to get sick of the Trojan Kode. It was nice to be known and all, but it wasn't so nice pissing off your English teacher or having one of your best friends say you were mentally unbalanced. To be honest, I had thought the Kode would be a lark. But as the stories got more serious, so did everyone in and around the paper. Josh and I were starting to fear that Ramy was getting out of control, and Ramy was starting to tell me he wanted to print his own issue of the paper. I decided to pull out, and for a while, I did. I threw myself headfirst into the city's Measure A campaign. I assumed the paper would die in the interim. It didn't. After the Measure A vote —to raise money for schools; we lost—and after we had received our college letters of acceptance, we felt bored and emboldened enough to put out more Kodes. But The Trojan Kode wasn't new anymore, and we started thinking about doing something that would make a bigger splash. That's when Ramy mentioned the Odyssey, the Uni High yearbook, the holiest of all school publications.   For $200, anyone can buy a page in the Odyssey. For example, friends buy pages titled "Friends Forever"; Christian girls buy pages referencing significant Bible passages. We decided to buy a page to punctuate seven fabulous issues of The Trojan Kode. At the bottom of the page, it would say The Trojan Kode. But in the center of the page we wrote something else—"Fuck conformity," upside-down and backward. The only way you could read it was by holding the message up to a mirror. The reversed image—the one we submitted —looked like "Bunkontelwiy." When we submitted our page, we told the student censors that Bunkontelwiy was an ancient West African philosopher. They bought it. But the yearbook adviser stared at it for a couple of minutes, turned it sideways and upside-down, and sent us to the vice principal. He looked at it for a few minutes and said, "Hey, did you know that if you turn this upside-down and read it backward, it says, 'Fuck conformity?'" We planned a second draft. This time, we ran a picture of several Trojan Kode writers below a paragraph of text. We ridiculed our own paper as "a terrible monster," a "rashly sensationalist" rag catering only "to the most base, irresponsible thoughts and yearnings of students who needed guidance and discipline." The yearbook adviser pondered the text, reading it line by line with his finger. Then he asked for our $200. We giggled to ourselves about what was really on the page. Finally, we could no longer contain ourselves. On June 13, the day before yearbooks were released, we published our final issue of The Trojan Kode, revealing the joke: if you read the first letter of every line vertically, you got FUCK CONFORMITY. Ta-da! Breathing heavily, the principal reads our punishment: five-day suspension; exclusion from graduation, Grad Night and the yearbook signing; and payment of $1,000 to cover the cost of five substitute teachers paid to cut our page out of the yearbook and shred it. We are punished because we have violated—cue irony—the Trojan Code of Conduct's directives on administrative defiance and vulgarity. We sit in the principal's office for an hour. Ramy flips through the yearbook in search of worse pages. He points to a picture of a woman posed in skimpy clothes. He argues the absurdity of our punishment. Josh says it's too harsh. Adam whispers for us to keep quiet. Jared sits, quiet and angry. Me, I'm thinking how stupid and naive my friends are—thinking they'd never get punished, preferring to believe we're being persecuted. We put "fuck" in the yearbook. We advertised the fact. We got punished. Duh. I don't blame the principal. I tell her that. She's a really nice lady. She respected me, and it hurts me that I shattered that. I know that after we leave her office, she will go to a pizza party/awards ceremony that the Irvine Public Schools Foundation was throwing for me, Ramy, Josh, Adam, Jared and all the other kids who helped pass out 30,000 pieces of literature, register 300 student voters, raise $1,910, and build a professional website for the campaign. I know she will have to tell the Irvine World News I couldn't be there because suspension guidelines wouldn't allow it. Throughout it all, a few administrators intimate that things would go easier for the rest of us if we fingered Ramy. If we blamed him, if we cried "manipulation" and made him our Rasputin, we could still be good kids. Later, in fact, after Ramy prints a Trojan Kode "Suspension Edition"—with phone numbers for administrators, his view of events and a cry for a student revolution—my mom gets a call from an administrator saying the principal respected me and knew I was still a good kid, and that there was probably someone (hint, hint) misguiding us. But we don't give them what they want. The school administrators point their fingers at us, and we—my friends and their parents—point their fingers at the school. People talk about suing. Everybody scapegoats everybody else, and it's the end of the world. But now, three months after the fact, it's like it never happened. Jared's up at Dartmouth. Adam's at Brown, where he joined the soccer team. He applied to be an columnist on the Brown Daily Herald and recently traveled to New York City for a debate tournament at Columbia University. Ramy, Josh and I are all at Berkeley. I'm taking anthropology, astronomy and statistics and am one of two Caucasians taking Intro to African-American Perspectives. In the first three weeks of college, I've founded Red Cross and ACLU chapters and joined the squash team. The guy who edited this story for the Weekly told me that in the end, what did us in was that for all our exceptional talents, we were still a bunch of high school kids in need of attention. Okay. Looking back, one of The Trojan Kode moms said, "You guys were a group of rebels injecting a totally new element into the school. There were no rules or procedures to follow, so the strongest and most stubborn personality won out in arguments. That personality was undoubtedly Ramy." I guess. I do know that Ramy owes me 4 bucks for racquetball bets and Josh wants me to go to a frat party. Last night, we talked about girls at a salad joint; Ramy is trying to figure out how to tell a girl that he likes her—straight-up or via a friend; Josh's girlfriend visited last week; and I'm still looking to make a connection with someone. As for any big lessons, I guess what Uni and The Trojan Kode taught me is that the only way to be a nice guy is to do nothing at all. If you want everyone to like you, keep your mouth shut.
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