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March 30, 2007 [feather]
Trickle down effect

Sex journalism has been the fashion for some time on college campuses. No student newspaper is complete--or at least cool--without its own resident sex columnist. And on some campuses, randy journalists have launched dedicated sex magazines such has Harvard's H Bomb, Vassar's Squirm, and Boink, which was founded by students at Boston University.

Now the trend is trickling down--and causing outrage in a small New Hampshire community:

HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) -- Some parents are protesting the "sex" edition of the student newspaper at Winnacunnet High School. Several said they were especially offended by a photograph of two women kissing under the headline, "Why men love women who love women," a quiz question about anal sex, and an interview with an unnamed custodian who said he had found a vibrator in the girls' shower.

"Those articles offended me personally as a parent," said Venus Merrill, a school board member. "It's not something you want to read with your 10-year-old and it's not something that should be going home."

Principal Randy Zito said the Winnachronicle had crossed the line of responsible reporting and that he had dealt with the problem privately. He also said he had pulled copies of the paper that normally would have been sent to middle schools in the cooperative school district.

The newspaper's faculty adviser defended the editors' decisions and said the February edition of the paper was intended to inform students, not shock people - although they knew it would stir controversy.

"The kids wrote the articles and came up with the topic," said adviser Carol Downer. "They didn't go out to cause controversy, but the Winnachronicle is also not a P.R. piece for the high school. This is a place for students to express their view and talk about issues that are troubling the student body."

The newspaper is not reviewed in advance of publication by administrators. The school board has not discussed the controversy in a public meeting, but parent Paula Wood, of Seabrook, said she wants it on the agenda for the next one.

Zito told her it would have to be discussed in a closed session because it might involve personnel issues, but Wood said she asked the superintendent to hold a public meeting.

"I don't want to discuss personnel," Wood said. "I want to discuss the paper. "I thought it was a vile, disgusting piece of pornography I wouldn't want to be in front of children, let alone paid for by taxpayers."

Wood said she and her children, two boys, discuss sex openly, "but not in a disgusting manner."

The student paper's editor in chief, Katie McCay, and managing editor, Lisa McManus, said they wanted to educate students, nearly half of whom are already having sexual intercourse, according to a 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the high school. The true or false quiz was particularly enlightening, they said.

"As we put the pages on the table, the staff said, 'Oh my goodness, that's false? I had no idea,'" McCay said. "This is definitely stuff kids didn't know about."

They also got a lot of feedback about the article on lesbians, she said.

"We thought it was an important topic to address," McCay said. "Being in a high school, it's something I've seen and something other kids have seen in the hallways."

In an editorial, McManus wrote that the students were aware they were dealing with a taboo.

"These stories have been edited and re-edited for content and delivery, keeping in mind that the job here is to inform, not shock," the editorial said. "It's about sex. Deal with it. ...

"It is something parents hope their children remain ignorant about until after marriage. It is something faculty members and administrators hope not to deal with, but something that almost all students have experienced or been exposed to."

Parents should be careful about aiming their shock in the wrong direction. There is something peculiar about parents objecting to students seeing a publication created by students, especially when that publication simply acknowledges what the students are already thinking and doing. The problem here -- if there is one -- is not a smutty newpaper, but the sexual precocity of kids who live in a culture that eroticizes absolutely everything, including children. That's not the kids' fault, and it sure isn't the fault of one issue of a student newspaper. It may be upsetting for parents to realize that their kids are a lot more sexually aware and active than they would like them to be, and it must be terrifying to consider the physical and emotional risks their kids are running. But a student publication that seeks, at least on some level, to ensure that kids are better educated about sex doesn't strike me as the best target for parental fear and frustration.

Erin O'Connor, 5:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 29, 2007 [feather]
Keeping secrets

So often memoirs wallow in their authors' self-absorption--what looks to be an almost ready-made genre centered on existing memories frequently suffers under memoirists' inability to remember unselfishly, and to narrate their remembrances as dispassionately as good writing requires. A classic example: Elizabeth Wurtzel's astoundingly narcissistic and self-pitying Prozac Nation. And a stunning exception: John Lanchester's Family Romance, a painstaking, measured, and riveting reconstruction of his parents' marriage, with particular attention paid to the life of a mother who, Lanchester discovers after death, had pegged her love for her husband and son to a major and irrevocable lie.

The opening paragraphs are as remarkable as the epigraph I posted last week:

One of the most famous things ever written about family life is the opening sentence of Anna Karenina. "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It's a magnificant line, so sonorous and resonant that it makes it easy for us not to notice it isn't true. Part of its falsehood lies in the fact that happy families aren't especially alike, and more than unhappy ones are unalike. But at a deeper level, the falsehood lies in the idea that a family is either happy or unhappy. Life, family life, just isn't that simple. Most families are both happy and unhappy, often intensely so, and often at the same time. A sense of safety can be a feeling of trappedness; a delight in routine can be suffocating boredom; a parent's humor and unpredictability can be a maddeningly misplaced childishness--and in many cases, the feeling is simultaneous. I was both happy and unhappy as a child, just as my parents were both happy and unhappy, and just as almost everyone else is.

Another way in which our family resembled everyone else's was that we had secrets. All families have secrets. Sometimes they are of the variety that a family keeps from outsiders; sometimes they are the sort that a family keeps from itself; sometimes they are the sort to whose presence no one consciously admits. But they are almost always there. People have a deep need for secrets. The question is what to do with them and about them, and when to let them go.

As these lines suggest, much of Lanchester's interest lies in the ways of family secrecy--in what goes unspoken, and in how we somehow instinctively know what things are unspeakable. His book traces how his mother's secrets came to be, what private psychic price she paid for keeping them, and how he--without knowing either what her secret was or even that there was one--absorbed the psychology of concealment so unconsciously and thoroughly that his own emotional life was, by the time he grew up and began experiencing inexplicable panic attacks, a mystery to him.

Highly recommended.

Erin O'Connor, 7:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

The bad and the ugly

Two lawsuits, two windows into the dark side of departmental self-governance. Underlying each: The gross unprofessionalism of people who are utterly twisted by a lifetime spent in academic environments that do not reliably differentiate between petty personal grievances and legitimate professional judgment. The departmental cultures depicted in these two cases are as warped as they are exemplary--what has gone wrong in them could go wrong just about anywhere in academe, particularly in humanities-based disciplines where assessment is necessarily far more subjective than it is in the sciences. Indeed, it would be the odd humanities department that doesn't contain the seeds of similar disasters.

Erin O'Connor, 8:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 24, 2007 [feather]
Those who can, teach

Amid all the ruckus about the failure of our public schools, it's worth noting inspiring stories about inspiring teachers when they do come along.

Rafe Esquith is one--and his commitment to helping poor, inner-city kids make it to the best colleges has caught the attention, and the funding, of Oprah and other philanthropists.

According to Rafe, "the biggest disadvantage that these children face is that none of them speak English as their first language. When a 10-year-old, who doesn't speak English as his first language, steps in front of you and does a scene from Shakespeare, there is nothing that they cannot accomplish."

"I started Hobart Shakespeareans because I fear something for these children," Rafe says. "And it's not gangs, it's not drugs. What I fear is that they're ordinary. I don't want my students to be ordinary; I want them to be extraordinary because I know that they are."

The Hobart Shakespeareans are more than just actors -- they are serious students. "My students come at 6:30 in the morning because they are hungry, they want out. They want to go to a top school." The classroom mission is "Be nice, Work hard." Rafe says, "It's the first thing the children learn from me. If I want my children to work hard, I better be the hardest working person they've ever met. If I want the children to be nice, I better be the kindest human being they've ever met."

The classroom has become more than a haven protecting students from inner-city violence — it has become a world where their dreams really do come true. The 6th and 7th graders Rafe helps prepare for college on Saturdays score in the top 5 to 10 percent on national test scores across the board. Rafe says, "I have students at Harvard, I have students at Yale. One of the best parts of my Saturday program is that my former students get to travel with me all over the U.S. We visit about 25 universities so that they can see the life that is there for them."

"My younger students were invited to give a performance at the U.S. Supreme Court and my older students were invited to give a performance at the Globe Theatre in London where William Shakespeare's plays were first performed. It was the greatest day of my teaching life."

If you have never heard of the Hobart Shakespeareans, it's time you did. Among other things, this group of ten-year-olds makes it clear that Shakespeare really is timeless, really is for everyone, and really does belong in the curriculum. A lot of schools--even a lot of elite colleges--have forgotten that.

Erin O'Connor, 10:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 22, 2007 [feather]
Great openings

Here's the epigraph to John Lanchester's memoir, Family Romance:

"If I am ever kidnapped or taken hostage," my mother told me, "and they allow me to communicate with you, but I can't say what's happened or where I am, what I'll do is, I'll deliberately make a grammatical mistake. For instance, I'll say 'between you and I' instead of 'between you and me.' So if you ever speak to me over the phone and I sound a bit strained and I say 'between you and I,' you'll know I'm being held hostage. Will you remember that?"

"Okay, Mum," I said.

As a snapshot of a relationship, a portrait of a mother, a window into a writer's mind, and a grammar lesson, this is a marvelously telling moment, and a great way to begin a book.

Lanchester's memoir focuses on his remarkable family life -- which includes a childhood spent not knowing that his mother had falsified a great deal of her history when she met his father, and which also details his attempts, as an adult, to reconstruct who his parents really were, and what their marriage, built as it was on secrets, actually meant.

I've only just begun, but I'm hooked. More to come.

Erin O'Connor, 5:01 PM | Permalink

A must-listen

Indoctrinate U director and star Evan Coyne Maloney was a guest on the Jim Sumpter show earlier this week. This is a very, very smart and sharp discussion. Listen to the MP3 to find out why Evan made the movie; why Indoctrinate U is a film that should interest every American, no matter what their politics; and how the film has run into an ideological glass ceiling with film festivals and commercial distributors.

And when you are done listening, go sign up for a screening on the IU website.

Erin O'Connor, 1:05 PM | Permalink

March 20, 2007 [feather]

was predictable. I also predict that the resurrected dangeral blogger will have something to say about this. Perhaps he'll do the right thing and sign up for a screening. He's a star, after all.

Erin O'Connor, 9:12 AM | Permalink

March 18, 2007 [feather]
You must see

Indoctrinate U:

Read about the film and sign up for a screening in your area at www.IndoctrinateU.com.

UPDATE 3/19: Hannity's America featured Indoctrinate U last night. Check out the segment here.

Erin O'Connor, 10:23 PM | Permalink