Lesson no. 1: Keep Your Mouth Shut
Photo by Fred VerhoevenNine months after we started an underground paper at University High School in Irvine, we're in the principal's office facing expulsion. I guess it was inevitable—isn't this the way it always ends up on the WB?
This isn't our first run-in with the administration, but it's the worst. What landed us here? Well, let's just say that it wasn't our most sophisticated act.
There had been genuine high points, however. During a school-year-long effort, our paper had exposed election rigging, questioned the sexism inherent in cheerleading, fought for equal treatment of deaf students, and indulged in snippy satire. But it was this yearbook thing—this stupid, stupid thing involving the word "fuck" in the yearbook, Odyssey—that landed us in the principal's office.
And as Ms. Principal yells at us about five-day suspensions and $1,000 repayments—the going price for five substitute teachers hired to sit in a "secret room" and cut out the page with the "fuck" reference from several hundred copies of the yearbook—all I can think is how much I hate high school. And how I'm not too fond of my friends at the moment, either.
The principal says this won't have any effect on our college admissions, but we're all pretty nervous—the principal included—and I think it occurs to everyone that all it would take is one angry teacher, administrator or parent to call the universities on a whim and—hey, I'm young—maybe that could destroy us.
About this time, I think I can make out that the principal is crying. I feel bad for her. She tells us we've been sold out, betrayed, and maybe she's right. She says it was one of my friends, and I know—we all know—who she means. She might even be right.
This principal was one of my best friends when I was working on the political campaign to get more money for the Irvine schools; so were most of the other teachers. I was a good boy, the best; that's what it said on the Principal's Award Ihad gotten a few weeks before. And now they walk into rooms and call me "asshole"—all because of the stupid, stupid yearbook thing? No way. I'm convinced it can't be all because of the yearbook thing.
It's got to be something else, something deeper. Seven editions of it.
NINE MONTHS BEFORE, Ramy dodin called Josh Sperling and me and told us to meet him at Ray's Pizza. When I arrived, Josh and Ramy were already sitting at a table, working on a large onion-and-pineapple. I dished out 3 bucks and grabbed a slice. Amid fluorescent lights and posters of race-car drivers and women in bikinis, Ramy outlined his plan for a high school revolution: we would launch an underground newspaper.
For 20 minutes, he sold us on every conceivable positive about being radical publishers: we would expose the "hack culture" of the school's official newspaper, The Sword and Shield; we would become—simultaneously—Public Enemies No. 1 and Most Admired Students; we would produce CDs and a website; there would be parties; we would rule the campus, the school district and the universe.
We agreed that Ramy's idea was a great one; Adam Rachlis would later refer to this as our "starry-eyed" period.
We named the newspaper The Trojan Kode, a play on the administration's own "Trojan Code of Conduct," which governs everything from where you should park to what you shouldn't wear to what you shouldn't say.
Perhaps we were sold on the paper because none of us had anywhere else to go. I had tried sports—freshman year, I won 32 straight wrestling matches, becoming the junior-varsity Pacific Coast League Champion. But I didn't much like it; it seemed the better you got, the more beat-up you got. The next year, I didn't go out for the team.
Instead, Ramy, Josh and I tried intellectual sports. We became vice presidents and presidents of Debate Club, Junior Statesmen of America, American Social League, Young Free Thinkers Alliance and Young Democrats Club. But our only real pleasure came from holding premarital-sex debates in front of the squeamish girls' soccer team, which quickly dwindled in attendance after the condom demonstrations. I had tried student government as a freshman, but when the chief plank in my platform—paper toilet-seat covers in all campus restrooms—was denied by the administration despite unanimous student support, I quit.
Ramy wrote something for The Sword and Shield and was offered a position there but turned it down, figuring his work would be censored.
There was the other, regular high school stuff—the stripper parties and beer feasts—but the fun was expensive and got old.
I don't know how to say this without sounding arrogant, but we weren't your average high school seniors. Josh had perfect scores on almost every college entrance exam. Ramy commanded every room he entered, from classrooms to living rooms full of adults. I started an online business and traveled to Honduras as part of a medical delegation.
As we planned our underground paper at Ray's Pizza, story ideas ranged from reviewing high-school parties to ridiculing Saturday detentions. We laughed in the face of possible trouble. Caught up in exuberance, I suggested a bold six-month plan for our movement: "First, our school; in three months, all the schools in Irvine; and in six months, all of Orange County."
Josh stopped me. He put down his pizza, looked at us with uncomfortable directness, and said, "Remember, friendship comes first."
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.
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 TrojanKomments@hotmail.com. I registered TrojanKode.com, 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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