Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oops... one more yearbook story

Stephen Strachan: Curmie Contender
Within an hour of posting my last piece on the quartet of yearbook controversies, one of the more faithful readers of this blog posted a comment on the Facebook page that she was surprised I hadn’t talked about the New York principal who plagiarized his yearbook message to students… he even congratulated the wrong class! (Side note: Curmie attended a university commencement ceremony a few years back in which the speaker—the state comptroller—repeatedly invoked the name of our arch-rival when presumably attempting to congratulate our graduates.)

The fact is, I didn’t know about this one. It hit the papers while I was out of the country, and whereas I had an internet connection of a sort, I frankly had a lot better things to do than spend a lot of time web-surfing. Even had I known about Roosevelt High School’s Stephen Strachan, I might have saved it for a separate post. It’s the outlier in the group in the sense that all the other stories were at least loosely about photographs and sometimes their accompanying cutlines: those that were excluded, those that probably should have been excluded, those that were altered without permission. (Not to mention the fact that my last post was over 2700 words already.)

But now I feel the need to say yes, this guy is an utter idiot, and ought not to be allowed on school property except with a ticket to the basketball game or band concert. What Strachan did, apparently, was to gain “permission” from a friend—the principal of a California high school—to use his remarks as the basis for Strachan’s own what-a-swell-group-of-kids-you-are message. He then made a few edits—replacing the names of California students with those of his own, but failing to change the name of the high school (!)—and mistakenly sent the wrong file off to the publisher.

Curmie has done this. Well, sort of. Once I’ve written a recommendation for a student, for example, I generally start with what I’ve already written if I’m asked to write another one. I edit it, and I try to highlight qualities in the student that would seem to make him or her a particularly good fit with a given program. But the fact is, if Mary Smith is applying to a half dozen grad schools, she’s going to get one letter, slightly revised. And I confess that I once missed editing one place in the letter and therefore told University X that Mary would be a great fit at University Y. (For the record, she was accepted at both schools.) So, yeah, I empathize.

Except that I don’t. For one thing, I wrote the original document, and I’m talking about precisely the same person. For another, no one—not Mary, not any place she’s applying—expects that I’ll craft a completely original document every time she applies someplace new. By contrast, every time I write my semi-annual state-of-the-organization speech to the honor society I advise, I start with a completely blank screen. Why? Because the circumstances are different, and the students in the room have a right to know what I think right now. Sometimes, to be sure, I’ll quote something I wrote the previous semester or the previous year: but I always do so for purposes of comparison—I said I wanted to see something happen, let’s see how we did—and I always make it clear that I’m quoting an earlier document.

Not so, Mr. Strachan. If he “got permission” from me to quote something I said, I’d grant it—but I’d expect my work to be attributed to me. I can’t grant someone the right to plagiarize from me, because the system only works if everyone involved in the communicative process is fully aware of who said what—that applies to the listener/reader, as well: in this case the students of Roosevelt High School, who were unfortunate enough to have been subjected to what we shall euphemistically refer to as his “leadership.”

A bit of the Newsday article:
Strachan, in a statement released through the Zimmerman/Edelson public relations firm, said: “I sincerely apologize to the Roosevelt community and to the class of 2014 for the inadvertent clerical error causing mistakes to be printed in the 2014 yearbook. An unedited draft of my remarks was accidentally published rather than the final version, and I take full responsibility for the oversight.”

An edited version of that page currently is being printed, and each student should receive a corrected yearbook by Friday, the statement said.

Jake Mendlinger of Zimmerman/Edelson said the total cost to replace that page of the yearbook is about $800, which will come out of the principal’s “discretionary fund.”
Curmie responds: 1). Why do you need to release your statement through a public relations firm?  2). One presumes that the term “inadvertent clerical error” is to differentiate this example from the intentional clerical errors made elsewhere. 3). The term “clerical error” sure makes it sound like you’re trying to shift the blame away from yourself, there, Ace. 4). If you “take full responsibility,” why is the money to reprint the books coming from a discretionary fund instead from your own pocket?

One is also tempted to wonder why the yearbook editor and/or advisor didn’t catch the error before it embarrassed everyone associated with the school. But what Curmie really wants to know is where the hell they found one Alfred T. Taylor, the vice president of the local school board. He’s quoted as describing the matter as an “unfortunate mistake,” a charitable but marginally accurate description. But then he said, “It’s unfortunate that somebody thought it was newsworthy.”

Really? Have we in fact found the one person in Roosevelt who understands less about education than the principal of the local high school? Yo, Dude, the high school principal just got busted for plagiarism. Don’t you care about original thought, basic honesty, or really accepting responsibility for one’s own actions? If a 15-year-old kid plagiarizes, it’s an unfortunate event, but it’s a fact of life. (It’s also, according to your own Code of Conduct, a Level 7 offense, carrying a minimum five-day suspension.) When a principal does it, it damned well better be newsworthy, or all is truly lost.

Yeah, there’s some definite Curmie consideration happening here.

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