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November 10, 2003

The poem that got me suspended, and the story behind it

First, the backstory.

When I was in high school, there was a Geometry teacher, Mrs. Johnson. She was a teacher that few students liked, and the impression was that it went both ways. I was one of those kids that was "too smart for my own good", as the saying goes. The kind of smart where people eventually tell you to "stop being smart", if you get my drift.

(My answer to that, which I just noticed was more clever than I realized at the time, was generally, "I don't know how.")

Anyway...on certain holidays, Mrs. Johnson would have us kids engage in the strange practice of writing a poem that connected the holiday in question with math. And we could decorate it, in a sort of twisted throwback to grade school, and then if we wanted we could read it in front of the class and hang it up on that corkboard strip above the chalkboard. Well, on Valentine's Day, I had some fun with that project, and I wrote the sappiest love poem ever, to my dear Mrs. Johnson -- a teacher that everyone in the class, herself included, knew I couldn't stand. Though I didn't really understand what "irony" was back then, I knew how to use it, and I got to read my poem before the class, and we students all had a nice chuckle at how I smothered her with false kindness.

On St. Patrick's Day a month later, I wasn't feeling nearly so generous. (The incident with the improper test scoring that's described in the poem had happened just the day before, and was the culmination of a series of conflicts between us two.) I wrote my poem during an earlier class that day, out in the hallway after having been kicked out for backtalking. The poem was called "The St. Patrick's Day Massacre", a loose reference to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, something I had heard of before (though I didn't know what it was). Here it is, pretty much exactly as it was written (including the signature at the end). The rest of the story follows it.

["P.J." (in the poem) was my teacher -- Patricia Johnson. It's kinda obvious, but just in case. And there weren't any spaces between lines in the original -- though there probably should have been -- so I left it with no breaks. And yes, the poetry is really lame -- I was 15, and more focused on message than meter. ;-)]

The St. Patrick's Day Massacre

Another poem, this one for St. P's Day,
All the kids are happy and psyched
Except the ones taught by old P.J.
Cuz she whips us and hurts us and uses her chains
She gets her enjoyment from inflicting pain.
Her only concern is to get her paycheck
Sometimes I really want to wring her neck.
Some kids have said I should
But only as a dare
She's threatened to kick me out
Cuz as far as I'm concerned Mrs. Johnson's unfair
And I realize I'm not the only one who doesn't care
She don't either
Well, that's the impression she's made
All she worries about is that the rent is paid.
"You mean you haven't learned a thing?"
She screams and wails
I can just imagine her tears
Coming out in buckets and pails.
"You mean you got that right
And I marked it wrong?
Oh no, what a bummer
I'm such a ding dong!
That's o.k., 10 points here and there
Won't make a dif," Yeah Mrs. J., that's fair.
You know what else is fair?
Giving us a quiz that we have to take 'til each one of us passes
And not counting it for anything
What do you think we are, a bunch of asses?
Don't answer that
We won't hear you anyway
Haven't you noticed
We don't listen to what you say
Say what? Oh yeah.
This is a St. Patty's day poem.
Some advice, Mrs. Johnson
Quit your "job" and go home.
Oh - Happy St. Patrick's Day
I'm glad you wore green
Maybe that'll cover up
The fact that you're mean



I actually got up and read that poem in front of the class and Mrs. Johnson. For most of the time I was reading, the class was in shocked silence, and so was Mrs. Johnson I guess. Once I finished, I went to hang my poem up above the chalkboard, as was the custom. Mrs. J. interrupted me and told me I could just put it on her desk.

To make the rest of a long story short: I was pulled out of lunch by a furious Mr. Farley, the Vice Principal, who told me I was suspended as we were still heading to his office (i.e., before I had a chance to explain or defend myself). I got suspended for 5 days, much like young Mr. Singh, who I'm writing about in my next entry. I also was kicked out of Mrs. Johnson's class for good. My mom, who had spent many long years standing up for me against school administrators, stood up this time too, and supported my effort to involve the state Board of Education (whom I had called on my own as soon as I got home from being suspended).

There are three things that school administrators fear: public embarassment, lawsuits, and their bosses. In this case, playing the "boss card" worked quite well, and with my mother's support (and the support of a Donna Wied from the Massachusetts Board of Education), my suspension was stricken from the record, and generally my punishment was removed. I wasn't allowed back into Mrs. Johnson's class, which was alright by me, except for the fact that she was the only teacher who taught Acclerated (i.e., "college prep") Geometry. And my mom -- perhaps the only person in the world who never wanted to stop or punish me for being "too smart" -- would not stand to have her son put at an academic disadvantage for what essentially amounted to completing his assigned work.

In the end, I got moved to a different Geometry class, with various stipulations designed to preserve some of my dignity (at least in my permanent record). Despite moving to a presumably easier class, my grade in Geometry went into decline, and I got the first C in my academic life. I also got weird half-scared looks from the bulk of teachers at my school for a long while, and the "poem incident" was one of the things that was brought up when I was rejected from the National Honor Society later in my high school career.

And, of course, whatever little respect I had previously had for the authority figures at my school went for a long walk and never came back. I knew they had no respect for me, and that they had little power to control me in terms of my non-physical conduct. Those two guidelines ruled my behavior for most of the rest of my time at that school. I learned my lesson, as the saying goes -- just not the lesson that anyone (except maybe my mom) was trying to teach me.

Too bad this happened in 1988, before 24-hour news and the Internet got so big, or else I could have gotten some national publicity for a day or two. I also ended up in a rift concerning the Pledge of Allegiance (though not over the phrase "under God"), right around the same time. I guess I was ahead of my time. ;-)

Posted by Lance Brown at November 10, 2003 12:34 AM | TrackBack
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