Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Quartet of Yearbook Controversies

Curmie was especially busy this May, as there was less time than usual between the end of spring semester and the beginning of the classes associated with his biennial trek to Ireland with students. The annual check-in with end-of-the-year high school activities is therefore happening a little (OK, a lot) later than planned. But, in the spirit of better late than never, here we go.

For whatever reason, different end-of-the-year events seem to be highlighted more in different years. Sometimes it’s prom; sometimes it’s the graduation ceremony itself; sometimes it’s senior days. This year, the hot topic is yearbooks. What I propose to do here is to look at four different controversies. In two cases, the school administrators got it wrong, realized it, and did what they could to make it right. In the others, the administration screwed up, then hemmed and hawed and muttered platitudes while actually doing bubkes. Whew—I was afraid that nobody was going to act like school administrators.

Let’s use that journalistic inverted pyramid structure on this one and start with the most egregious case. That would be in Wasatch County, Utah, where administrators decided prudishly, unilaterally, inconsistently, arrogantly, and without as much as consultation to Photoshop the pictures of female students in the school yearbook.

Yeah, there’s a dress code, which bears considerable similarity to every other dress code: a). it is incompetently written, with numerous mistakes of grammar and punctuation, b). it outlaws about everything, c). it gives absolute discretion to the administration to be arbitrary and capricious in deciding what constitutes a violation.

And a lot of girls’ photos were altered by the administration, probably illegally and certainly unethically. Equally importantly, a fair number of photos showing precisely the same kind of clothing weren’t altered. What that means, if nothing else, is that a lot of girls violated the policy as it could be interpreted by voyeuristic idiots like Wasatch County School District superintendent Terry E. Shoemaker. Seriously, if the examples that have been made available to the public are anything to go by—if they are even accurate but isolated examples—then the problem isn’t with the girls, it’s with the drooling middle-aged men like Shoemaker who get turned on a little too easily by the sight of a little adolescent skin. (Curmie flashes back to another case in Utah—about 75 minutes away, from what I can tell—a couple of years ago.

Seriously, the unedited photos I’ve seen are as innocuous as it is possible to be. There’s nothing, and I do mean nothing inappropriate about any of the unedited shots I’ve seen. Maybe, maybe covering up a tattoo or a bra strap could be forgiven (that is, after all, the sort of thing professional photographers are sometimes asked to do by their clients), but in the case of sophomore Kimberly Montoya (that’s her in the photos at the right: the real shot and the clumsily edited one), what got the old boys’ hearts a-palpitating wasn’t cleavage (there’s only the slightest hint of that in any of the allegedly offending photos) or a tattoo; it wasn’t a bare midriff or the glimpse of an undergarment… it was <gasp> shoulders. Yes, shoulders. That’s what got awkwardly covered up by the censorious asshats who dropped out of the Photoshop workshop after the first lesson and couldn’t even make their absurd editing look competent.

Turns out, there’s actually a line about shoulders in the dress code… not in the “extreme” clothing section, but under the definition of “modesty.” So the good folks running Wasatch High School aren’t quite ready to emerge from the 1950s, and by God, their students aren’t going to be allowed to do so, either. That’s ridiculous enough, but the arbitrary decision-making, the utter lack of transparency, and the smugness of the administration’s response are the greater problem. Sophomore Shelby Baum notes that “They didn’t tell you before they edited it, they didn’t give you an option to fix it, so you look funny in your yearbook picture.” Baum’s photo was altered in part to cover a dress-code compliant tattoo. And, of course, there was no objective—or even consistent—criterion for what was considered acceptable. Two girls wore the same top—one photo was altered to add sleeves, the other wasn’t.

Even Idiot in Charge Superintendent Shoemaker admits the process was flawed, although of course he’s righteously indignant that anyone might expect him or his lackeys to act like adults in the 21st century instead of something out of a bad community theatre production of The Crucible. “We only apologize in the sense that we want to be more consistent with what it is that we’re trying to do. In that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things.” News flash: the students were dressed appropriately, whether terminally constipated jackasses like Shoemaker think so or not.

Shoemaker did issue an unapologetic apology, blaming the students for not paying attention to the sign (4 feet by 5 feet, he hastens to tell us) that warned against “tank tops, low cut tops, inappropriate slogans on shirts, etc.” Guess what? None of the students in the pictures I’ve seen did any of that. And Shoemaker, like all moral cowards, passed the buck on the administrative snafus associated with his nonsensical censorship policy from school officials to the yearbook staff. What a sorry excuse for a leader this little putz is!

But wait (as they say in the infomercials), that’s not all! Turns out that boys didn’t really have to obey any standards at all. There’s a page in the yearbook with the headline “Wasatch Stud Life.” The sub-head reads “Studs doin’ what studs do best.” Curmie likes to imagine himself reasonably creative, but seriously, Gentle Reader, I couldn’t make this shit up. There are photos of boys with shirts gaping open, boys showing off tattoos, boys showing significant quantities of boxer shorts. Ah, but you see, they’re boys. Boys will be boys. Or studs. Or whatever.

Curmie is unlikely to be accused any time soon of being a raging feminist, although he’s certainly been accused of worse. But it’s hard to argue with the interpretation of Holly Mullen, the executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. An article in the Salt Lake Tribune describes her reaction:
The celebration of boys as “studs” while girls’ bodies are digitally covered is evidence of a bigger cultural problem…. “It speaks to allowing young men to dress and act as they choose and yet young women have to be kept in order,” Mullen said.

The notion that women must be controlled and directed so as not to inflame male sexual appetites only objectifies women and can contribute to sexual assault, Mullen said.

The dynamic often plays out in sexual violence, she said. “It’s a crime of control and taking away someone else’s control and autonomy. It sets them [men and women] up for that down the line.”
Yeah, what she said.

In other words, if there are mistakes to be made in terms of what photographs to include in the yearbook and how to edit them, the good folks at Wasatch found a way to make them. Their approach was ham-handed, opaque, incompetent, capricious, inconsistent, arrogant, puritanical, censorious, irresponsible, unethical… and, oh yeah, sexist in the extreme. Other than that, it went off without a hitch. Chances of a Curmie nomination for Shoemaker and his minions: Excellent.

And so we turn to story number two: the inclusion in Mesa (AZ) High School’s yearbook of a two-page spread celebrating the school’s teenaged parents. Curmie chose the word “celebrating” in the foregoing sentence carefully, by the way. I thought about “acknowledging” or “highlighting,” but the pages in question… well… celebrate some of the most ignorant, counter-productive behavior in which teens could engage. Sex at age 16 or 17 without appropriate birth control measures has disastrous consequences for everyone involved—from the mother to her relationship to the father to the child to society at large. Yes, teen pregnancy and teen parenting is part of life. So is heroin addiction; I don’t see the yearbook trying to spin that into a photo spread. (Maybe I shouldn’t have written that last sentence lest it give some idiot yearbook editor and irresponsible advisor an idea.)

It is true that if you look closely at the pages in question, there’s some ambivalence about whether this parenting thing was such a good idea, but, really, how many of us get past the headlines and the multiple soft-focus (metaphorically speaking) photographs. Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wrote about this case as it was garnering national attention; the following is an excerpt from a comment I wrote on his Ethics Alarms page.
This yearbook spread does indeed glamorize irresponsible behavior, and clearly sets out to engender a case of the warm fuzzies, concentrating on the pseudo-heroic efforts of young mothers struggling with the difficulties of student parenthood while blithely ignoring the purely voluntary choice that put them in that position. (Of course, it is possible that one of the mothers might have been a rape victim and chose for religious or ethical reasons not to terminate the pregnancy. That’s another matter altogether.)

The yearbook feature does, in fact, empower a group of young women who, having made a mistake, are trying to mitigate the negative consequences by continuing their educations. But such an argument remains sufficiently destructive to the next generation of prospective mothers who see only a romanticized view of profoundly counter-productive behavior that there is no question that cooing over teen pregnancies is a net minus.
Particularly problematic for me was the argument in favor of including the feature: “Student parents don't have time to go to homecoming and do all that because they have a kid, so they don't really get to be seen on the yearbook, so we thought it would be a good idea to put them on the page where they could be seen.” Thus spake yearbook staffer Austin Contreras. He’s a kid, so I don’t want to be too hard on him, but the fact that teenaged parents don’t participate in school events is precisely why they shouldn’t be featured in the yearbook. Yes, include them in class photos, in candids if they happen to be there. No, don’t, to paraphrase an editorial in the Arizona Republic, “turn them leperlike from the colony and deny them an education.” But don’t “[glamorize] a life-altering mistake,” either. This seems reasonable to me. All of us make mistakes, but this is a huge one at that age. Acknowledge those who overcome the obstacles in their lives, but acknowledge, too, that some of those obstacles were self-created.

The problem here is the flip side of what happened in Utah, where censorial impulses ran amok and the administration butted into the yearbook’s operation in unnecessary and embarrassing ways. Here, the faculty advisor and other responsible officials failed to suggest that a really bad idea was a really bad idea. It’s too little, too late to proclaim in the wake of the controversy that “Yearbooks are an opportunity to commemorate students' school activities and achievements. The material presented reflects choices made outside of the school environment.”

Including the pages was dumb, but I’m less exercised than my friend Jack. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Fair.

Moving on to Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Georgia. There, senior class vice president and apparently all-around good kid Paris Gray was suspended and threatened with not being able to graduate for a “quotation” that accompanied her yearbook photo: “When the going gets tough, just remember to Barium Carbon Potassium Thorium Astatine Arsenic Sulfer Utranium Phospheros.”

It’s been over 40 years since Curmie was in a chemistry classroom, but he can recognize a nerd joke when he sees one. The chemical symbols for those elements are Ba C K Th At As S U P. “Back that ass up,” in other words. Apparently this is what passes for riotously hilarious in some quarters these days.

OK. So. Young Ms. Gray was being ever so clever, and the editors, advisor, and whoever else was supposed to check on such things were too f*cking stupid to notice the obvious asleep at the wheel, so the passage made it into print. Naturally, the fact that the silly and not very funny joke made it past the dim-witted authorities was Paris’s fault, and what raised no alarms when the gag was submitted was enough to send administrators into crisis mode in the spring.

They blustered and made threats and did all the things dumb administrators do. Then what The Atlantic’s James Hamblin calls “Internet justice” struck, school officials backed down and apologized, and all was well with the world.

Let’s face it, this incident does raise issues about Ms. Gray’s readiness to be granted a diploma. For one thing, if you’re going to make a joke that involves words on a page, misspelling three words in a row is probably contra-indicated (that would be sulfur, uranium, and phosphorus, in case you’re wondering). Of course, it could be the editor who screwed that up (certainly s/he doesn’t emerge from this incident covered in glory). But it’s unquestionably Ms. Gray who wants us to believe that “back that ass up” means something like “You have to go back and start all over.” Um, no. Not now, not ever, and certainly not in the most famous (or at least notorious) use of the phrase, in the ‘90s rap song “Back That Azz Up,” which is, well, just nasty. That makes Paris either utterly devoid of interpretative ability or a liar trying to excuse her own actions behind a façade of fatuous innocence. My money’s on the latter, but I’ll pretend otherwise.

But if incompetent spelling and inability to comprehend text aren’t enough to keep Ms. Gray from graduating, neither should acting like an adolescent. The school was right to back down, and they did so in time to minimize the damage. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Slim.

Finally, there’s the case of Jessica Urbina (right), a student at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral High School, whose picture was left out of the yearbook because she wore a tuxedo instead of a dress. It’s a dumb rule, and the lack of transparency is also an issue.

But there are three fundamental differences between this case and the one in Utah. First, it’s a Catholic school, and as such they ought to be granted a little more latitude in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate: there are lots of things Curmie might not like about the way they run things, but—within some fairly broad parameters—they have a little more autonomy than a public school would, and school officials were trying to follow Diocesan rules.

Second, Ms. Urbina’s picture was not altered so she “[looks] funny in [her] yearbook photo.” It may not seem preferable to omit the photo altogether rather than to change it. But we’re not talking about a voluntary touching-up here. What happened in Utah was, effectively, misrepresentation, which to my mind is worse than omission.
Finally, and most importantly, school officials issued a comprehensive, public, and apparently sincere apology. I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:
Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn. While we would have preferred to have this learning be less public than the current situation, especially for the impact it has on individuals and families, we are a community open to sharing our struggles and joys with the wider world so that we can all learn from each other, whether from successes or failures. More than 300 years ago, St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of our founders, said that our students will learn far more from us by our actions than by the words we speak. This is one of those moments.
School officials, like everyone else, are fallible. They got one wrong, realized it, and did whatever they could to rectify the situation. They behaved like grown-ups. So did Jessica and her family. And, ultimately, everyone won. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Zero.

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