In the past month or so, I was intrigued by the story as it was reported about Kiera Wilmot, the young black woman in Florida who got in trouble for exploding a pop bottle bomb. What first attracted me to the story were the similarities to my own experience. At 16 years old, I was an honor student, with straight A’s in science courses, and I was also threatened with expulsion for something I did that was school related.
My incident did not involve science, it involved what I did as the editor of my high school paper, but in some respects what I did was far more explosive, just not in the chemical reaction sense of the term. Both the similarities and the differences have serious implications far beyond the respective antics of high school students.
I was enrolled without my knowledge in a journalism class, by my high school debate coach, who was “stuck” (his word) teaching journalism for the year, because the regular teacher was on sabbatical, and as he put it, he “wasn’t going to be stuck alone”.
I was on the honors program track; journalism was a goof-off class, consisting of producing a rag of a student paper twice a semester. I was interested in a good GPA and amassing an impressive transcript. The result of the journalism class effort was usually a massive amount of litter that no one looked at, much less read.
My grade literally depended on making the student paper relevant, and read, as measured by a significant decrease in the amount of litter when the paper was distributed to students. I wanted an A, at the very least, if I was going to be stuck in what I considered a stupid course and a waste of my time, and I was persuaded that being editor would look good on a college application, so I didn’t transfer out.
I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams — and worst nightmares. I did a front page piece on a problem with sewer rats, and the refusal of two students to take out the garbage on weekends because of the rat problem after the parking lot lights were out when closing up, at the local McDonald’s. Because of their refusal to go near the rats, to take out the garbage, they had been fired. One of the two was a friend of mine, also from the debate team; the other went to one of the parochial schools in the area.
I went to the parking lot at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night after a particularly busy evening; the Mickey D’s was the local gathering place for students from all of the schools in the area after events. I took photos, using a very expensive borrowed camera, and I ran the story with a photo of one rat, approximately life size, taking up half the page above the fold, dead center under a big headline. I documented the rat problem, and I reported on the unfair treatment of student employees, I made my news coverage relevant to every high school student who worked outside of school, which was most of my fellow classmates.
There was negligible litter when the paper came out. But there was also a lawsuit against my school district, first from the individual franchise operation, then from the corporation.
I sympathize with Kiera Wilmot, because I remember how terrified I was of being expelled from school. I had taken the SAT at the beginning of my junior year, and I could see both high school graduation and my college choices disappearing from my grasp. I remember my knees shaking, and feeling light-headed, and sick to my stomach when I was called into the principals office; I had NEVER been in trouble before that afternoon.
I anticipated my father’s VERY loud, angry “YOU DID WHAT?”, followed by a lot more invective. To put this into context, my parents had been friends with the superintendent of schools since THEY were in high school together; most of the school board were in their closest circle of friends as well; the franchise owner was another friend, involved in many of the same community organizations, AND the franchise did their banking at the small community bank that my father and a couple of his friends had started, owned, and where he served on the board of directors. The college to which I had applied was the one attended by my father, and where he deeply wanted me to attend.
My parents would have PREFERRED I was involved in a minor felony, instead of what I did. Among other aspects, the amount of money involved would have been smaller.
Like Kiera Wilmot, I came out of my ‘adventure’ smelling like a rose; McDonald’s caved, my friend and the other student were offered their jobs back, with a raise and lost wages, if I called off the boycott that resulted from my article. On the day my second full edition of the school paper came out, I also received my acceptance to my first choice college, almost immediately after applying. I had written about my experiences with the rats, and student treatment, and the economics of boycotts, the lessons learned from the school paper, and how I was affected by the lawsuit in my application, in the section that required an essay about a significant experience. My father ended up boasting about my courage and initiative.
So I know what it is like to be in very public trouble, and to have the media come to my rescue, if on a slightly smaller scale. Like Kiera Wilmot, my teachers were tremendously supportive, including providing the camera, and donating the cost of running the rat photo, which would otherwise have taken the entire budget for the school paper. They also gave me tremendous moral support when the suit happened and I was threatened with expulsion and retaliation.
Kiera Wilmot similarly has had her criminal charges dropped, and has received a scholarship to a NASA space camp. She received tremendous support from her teachers, including media appearances defending her. I doubt she will have any trouble getting into another high school, and eventually into the college of her choice.
Those are the similarities, the differences here are more significant.