I was in grade eleven, and it was already late in the school year when I returned to the principal’s office after my five day suspension. My dad was sitting next to me while the principal—a tall, stocky woman with short black hair—calmly informed us that the administration had decided I could no longer attend Sir Winston Churchill High School. Of the three friends who had been suspended with me, Paul and Kevin would be allowed back in, but Philip would also no longer be welcome.
My heart plunged into my stomach. The stress I had gone through up to that point with the suspension and everything leading up to it had been bad enough, but now this?
I heard dad speaking through my shock-induced haze. “You’re kicking him out now?” he said. “With only two months until finals? Do you realize how this will affect his grades? How can you do this to one of your students?”
The principal was unwaivering. What I had done was completely unforgivable. They wanted me out. She gave us the contact information for the superintendent with whom we would have to meet in order to finalize the expulsion and transfer to my new school.
“We will be appealing this decision,” my dad told the principal as we were ushered out of her office.
“You’re welcome to try,” she said. “The decision is final, though. The meeting with the superintendent is just a formality.”
Then she smirked and looked right at me. “No student has ever successfully appealed an expulsion.”
I was a pretty stereotypical “nerd” in high school. A debilitatingly shy and socially awkward computer club member who spent the vast majority of his time on the internet and listened exclusively to music by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Like a lot of sixteen year old boys, I thought I was hilarious. My friends and I all thought we were funny. We quoted The Simpsons to each other religiously (and this was 1997, when The Simpsons was still considered edgy—many kids our age weren’t even allowed to watch it), and we reveled in anti-authoritarian rhetoric, raging against the incompetent school system and our bumbling teachers at every unsupervised opportunity.
It was during one of these unsupervised gatherings—the four of us surrounding a table in the back corner of the school library—that I conceived of and pitched my idea. We had just finished mocking and laughing at the latest edition of the school newsletter, a student-produced bimonthly collection of recent happenings, upcoming events, and general information called “The Churchillian.” Each issue was prominently prefaced with Winston’s Way, a collection of principles and guidelines aimed at fostering a safe, friendly environment in the school community. Being hilarious teenage boys, of course we thought the whole thing was ludicrous.
“We should make our own newsletter,” I said. “I can put it up on the web, and we could write whatever we want. Nobody would even know it was us.” The idea was an instant hit, and was quickly followed by a brainstorming session of all the hilarious and epic things we could do if we had our own newsletter.
That night I went home, signed up for a free email address, created a new account on a free hosting site (probably Tripod or Geocities, I don’t remember specifically) and wrote my own version of Winston’s Way.
All teachers and students are equal. But teachers are more equal than students.
Each of us is entitled to freedom of expression, as long as the expression has been approved in advance by the administration.
The article spoofed every category in the original Winston’s Way. I no longer have it, so I’ve paraphrased the above examples from memory, but I’m sure you get the general idea.
The other thing I did was create and print some forms that would facilitate the feature of my newsletter that I expected to be its crowning glory: Teacher Report Cards. We spit-balled a lot of silly ideas around the library table on that fateful afternoon, but the one that struck a chord with all of us—the one we all agreed would be the defining feature—was the teacher report cards. Our plan was to surreptitiously allow our fellow students to grade and leave anonymous comments about their teachers, which we would collect and publish. The teachers graded us, after all, wasn’t it only fair for us to return the favor?
Over the next few days, Philip quietly handed out my report card forms to his friends, who would then covertly pass them around their classrooms. At the end of each day Philip would return to me a handful of completed report cards, which I would take home and painstakingly transcribe into ASCII tables. Under the protection of anonymity, I had no qualms about including everything uncensored under the teachers’ real names.
Comment: He’s OK I guess, makes funny jokes.
Comment: Comes to class drunk. Wears sunglasses because he’s hung over all the time.
Comment: Total bitch, gave me a D on my final essay.
Less than a week after its inception, it was with incredible pride and anticipation of glory to come that I, under the alias “Harry Schlong,” published the debut issue of The Churchillian: Underground Edition.
The first issue was met by tons of positive feedback from my friends. I published a second issue with more satirical articles by Harry Schlong and more teacher report cards within a couple weeks. I obsessed over the visitor counter on the website, celebrating each increment. I read my own articles over and over, so proud of what I had written; so deliriously gleeful in my oh-so-clever rebelliousness.
Then, one day, the website disappeared.
I opened a support ticket with the host, and they responded to tell me that they had received complaints about the website and determined that it violated their terms of service. The unsatisfactorily vague answer and my inability to do anything about it angered me, so I did what I always did when I got angry—I logged on to IRC and vented about it to strangers on the internet.
It turns out that one of those strangers happened to have his own web server and domain name. He was only a little older than me and, like me, thought that what I was doing was hilarious. He offered to host my website and newsletter for free, and further guaranteed that he would personally laugh in the face of anyone who dared complain to him.
“Dude, I’m in the USA. I’m not scared of some rinky-dink Canadian high school,” he assured me.
Of course I jumped at the offer, and was back up and running at a new URL the following day.
The only real problem I faced as a result of the shut-down was that now I had to get the new URL out to the students. Besides word of mouth, I also printed and cut out little slips of paper with the URL on them which I placed in various conspicuous locations throughout the school—on keyboards in the computer lab, chairs in the library, on top of urinals. It wasn’t long before my hit counter was slowly climbing on its own once again.
The school library was where my friends and I had first breathed life into my brainchild, and the library would be where I caught my first glimpse of its (and our own) impending demise.
I was sitting at the back near the librarian’s office, working on some homework during one of my spare periods, when I overheard one of the teachers speaking in hushed tones with the librarian.
“Do we know who it is yet?” the librarian asked.
“Not yet, but we’re close,” said the teacher.
“Well I hope you get him soon.”
It was immediately apparent to me that they were talking about me. I started to sweat. I shoved my face a little closer to my books and listened intently to every word of the conversation taking place behind me. I recognized the teacher’s voice—he was one of the ones who got particularly nasty comments in the report cards.
“When we find him, he’s going down,” said the teacher.
The teacher walked out of the office, right past the table I was sitting at. He gave me a glance as he passed. I was probably as white as a sheet.
That same night, I decided to take some preventative and protective measures on the website. I added a large notice to the main page stating that while I unquestionably felt that The Churchillian: Underground Edition was a protected form of free-speech, I was more than willing to personally field any complaints, and even work with interested or concerned parties to modify the content into something that everyone found acceptable. I displayed my Harry Schlong email address prominently as a method of contact.
I went about my business as usual the next day, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen. I had the looming impression that I was already doomed, and it was too late to do anything about it. Until yesterday, the newsletter had been a harmless joke shared between me and my friends. Now it was something more. It had attracted the wrong kind of attention.
My anxiety levels were higher than usual all day, so I was already feeling shaky as I walked down the crowded staircase to my last class of the day. Then I saw him—the same teacher from the day before who had been talking to the librarian—making his way up through the throng of students towards me. He spotted me too. Our eyes met for a moment, and I quickly looked away, doing my best to slip meekly past him.
“I know what you did,” I heard him say behind me.
Oh God, I thought. What is happening?
I slowly looked behind me. He had stopped half way up the stairs and turned around to glare directly at me with the angriest and scariest expression I had ever seen on a grown man in person. I couldn’t speak. All the blood drained from my face. Several of the other students who had been making their way up and down the stairs with us had stopped to watch the spectacle with confused looks.
“I know it was you,” said the teacher. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done.”
And then he continued on his way up the stairs.
That night, the internet stranger-turned-hero who was now hosting my website contacted me over ICQ.
“I got a call from your school today, man,” he typed. “They are really pissed off.”
“What happened?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“I’m sorry dude. They laid down some serious threats. I can’t protect you anymore.”
I never heard from him again.
The next morning during my first period social studies class, the teacher received a call from the office and told me I had to go see the vice principals. I tried to act surprised and confused, but it didn’t fool my teacher. His expression seemed to say “I know what this is about, and I know that you know what this is about, and you’re about to get exactly what you deserve.”
The VPs sat together behind the desk in one of their offices and grilled me for about thirty minutes. They had print-outs of the website and the newsletters. They made me read comments from the report cards and asked me if I thought that was something appropriate to write about teachers at the school.
“These teachers have families,” they told me. “They have lives outside of here. What if one of them tried to get a job at another school, and their potential employer saw this about them on the internet?”
“Well, maybe they should treat their students with a little more respect and, oh, I don’t know, not come to class hung over,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“We know you didn’t do this alone,” they said. “We know that Paul, Kevin, and Philip all had a part in this.”
That’s when I found my voice. “They didn’t help me, I did this by myself,” I told them.
They looked at each other and frowned, shaking their heads.
“We already know they helped you. We talked to all of them already this morning and they admitted it. We just want you to confirm what they already told us.”
I shook my head at them, getting angry. All that was missing was the ridiculously bright lamp shining in my face. Philip had helped pass around the teacher report cards, but Paul and Kevin literally had nothing to do with it other than the initial brainstorming session before even a single word had been written. “I don’t know what they could have told you,” I said. “If they claimed any responsibility they’re lying to protect me or something. I’m the only one who did this.”
The VPs were obviously disappointed with my refusal to snitch, but eventually gave up and told me that all four of us were being suspended pending further notice. I was instructed to take my things and leave school property immediately.
I think I took the bus straight home after that. I was a little overwhelmed by what I had just gone through, and still processing the gravity of the situation. When I got home mom was there (dad was probably at work), and obviously surprised to see me show up so early in the day.
“Mom,” I said, “I’m in really big trouble.”
By that point my parents had grown somewhat accustomed to my shenanigans—I had gotten in trouble a few times before. In grade four they caught me with a full set of shoplifted Marvel trading cards; they marched me down to the convenience store where I had taken them from and the owner gave me a stern lecture about how, if he wanted, he could report the theft to the police and it would go on my permanent record (I later learned that my parents had called ahead to let him know they were bringing me in, and asked him to be as scary as possible). In junior high I invented my own currency—I printed an initial run of “Daddio-Dollars” on my computer which I handed out to kids at school, then sold candy and some of my brothers toys to them. Once I had fostered enough confidence in the purchasing power of my homemade money, I printed up a ton of it and used it to buy all kinds of sweet stuff from the other kids. Some of their parents ended up complaining to the school, and I was made to stop. I wasn’t really punished for that one—my parents later told me they were actually really impressed.
This time it was different, though. This time I had actually been suspended. I didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect.
Fortunately, both my parents and everyone I talked to during my suspension (the length of which the school refused to define, but ended up being five days) were largely supportive of my cause. They argued (and I agreed) that what I had done was careless, and I could have avoided the whole mess in the first place by just using common sense, but at the same time the school was grossly overreacting.
One friend of mine put me in touch with a reporter from the Calgary Herald who had written a story about a student who had drawn raunchy comics and sold them (entirely off school property) to other kids. A teacher found and confiscated one of the comics from someone who had bought it, and then they suspended the artist! The newspaper article caused a very embarrassing situation for the school, and the artist was promptly reinstated. The reporter said it was a very similar case to mine, and he would definitely be interested in pursuing the story. I told him I’d let him know after I knew what was happening with my suspension.
After five gut-wrenching days they finally called me back into the school, which is where my dad and I learned that I was to be expelled.
The principal’s smug assertion that the expulsion was a done-deal meant I had to prepare for the worst. We set up the appointment with the superintendent, and spent the few days leading up to it looking into the school I would be transferred to. When we visited for a brief tour, it seemed so alien and frightening to me. I tried to picture myself taking my final exams, surrounded by complete strangers in the unfamiliar gymnasium. It all felt so surreal.
The night before the meeting, my dad asked if I planned on saying anything or if I wanted him to do all the talking. “You can talk if you want,” I told him, “but I will definitely be making my own appeal.” My dad nodded and told me he would look over my speech if I wanted him to. I stayed up most of the night working on it, making sure it said everything I wanted to as clearly and concisely as possible. I wanted to keep it polite and civil, while at the same time expressing how deeply and infuriatingly wrong I believed it was for them to punish me this severely. I didn’t take my dad up on his offer to help—I wanted the words to be mine and mine alone.
The superintendent was another tall, stocky woman with short-cropped hair. My dad later joked that she was probably the principal’s older sister. It was just her, my dad, and me in the room when she sat us down and asked if I had anything I’d like to say before we begin.
I nodded, pulled out the cue cards I had created, and gave her my speech.
I told her I knew that what I had done had offended a lot of people at the school, and I told her that I was truly sorry for that. It was all done in the name of humor, and I never meant for or expected it to be taken so seriously. I also told her I felt that the school had handled the situation extremely poorly.
The superintendent was silent for most of my speech, save for one moment when I said “I know that the teachers have to look like they’re protecting the students’ best interests…”
As soon as I said that, she stopped me and said “would you care to rephrase that?”
“I know that the teachers have to protect the students’ best interests…” I said. She nodded, and I continued.
I told her how I had written, published, and hosted the newsletter entirely in my own time, never using school resources. She nodded, unflinching. I told her how I had reached out to the school on the website, stating that I would be willing to work with them to improve the newsletter into something they could accept. She nodded again, unflinching. I told her how if the school had just contacted me with their concerns and let me know how serious they were taking this, I probably would have taken everything down. More nodding, still no flinching. I told her how I had talked to a reporter at the Calgary Herald who had previously written an article about a situation very similar to this, and that he had expressed a keen interest in the outcome of my situation.
Wait a second… Was that a flinch?
At the end of the meeting, she thanked us, and told us she would be contacting us with next steps shortly. The next day I was reinstated at Sir Winston Churchill High School and told to resume my normal class schedule immediately.
I did it! I won!
Philip had his meeting with the superintendent right before mine, and it hadn’t gone quite as well, so he was shocked when they told him to go back to school the next day. Paul, Kevin, and Philip all forgave me for what I put them through, but I think it was a little longer before their parents fully trusted me again.
Philip and I met with the vice principals again on our first day back, and they told us that we now had a lot of work to do to regain the trust of the teachers and administrators at the school. The English department needed a new website, so as part of our penance we had to go offer our services to the head English teacher. We went straight to the English department office after leaving the meeting.
The head English teacher greeted us after we knocked. “What do you two want?”
“We’d like to help you with your website,” I said.
“I don’t want your help,” he said. “I read what you wrote. Your Winston’s Way. I was very offended.”
“I understand, and I’m sorry,” I said.
He closed the door on us, and that was the end of our penance.
Ironically (or maybe not, I can never tell anymore thanks to Allanis Morissette), the next year I ended up in the classes of both the head English teacher and the teacher who had stopped me in the stairway. I got highest achiever awards in both those classes by the end of the year, and I am immensely grateful to both of those teachers for their influence in my life and for encouraging my love of reading, writing, and science.
Philip and I entered a computer programming contest on behalf of the school that next year, and ended up winning in the “most creative” category for our chess game that incorporated RPG elements. I vividly remember bringing the trophy we won to the office the next day, because everyone who saw me carrying it through the hallway stopped and stared—it was almost half as big as I was. The principal was near the back of the office when I brought it in, but she didn’t even acknowledge me. She just went into her own office and closed the door. In fact, I never spoke to her again after that meeting where she told my dad and I that my expulsion could never be appealed.
It was an interesting time in my life, to say the least, but I’m glad to have had the experience. It taught me a lot about myself, authority figures, family and friendship, and the importance of standing up for what you believe is right. That being said, I heartily do not recommend expulsion as a rite of passage for high school students. I’m fairly certain the extreme levels of stress and anxiety I experienced shaved a few years off my life.