The Day I Crucified Myself
Recently I heard they are tearing down one of my high schools and rebuilding it. The new principal is asking alumni to send in stories about their experiences there. Mine happened to be relatively unique, and not particularly peachy. I’m not really an alumni, as I never graduated high school, but my story is a deep part of the history there. I wrote this bit a few years ago and thought that since they are seeking stories about the history of the school, and since this is an important one that shaped who I am and one that I’ll never forget, I should post it.
The Day I Crucified Myself
“Peter, you need to come with me to my office.” My high school principal was standing in the doorway of my homeroom class. I didn’t look at her.
“Mm. Sorry–can’t right now,” I mumbled. “I have to reinforce my cross.” I pulled a long strip of tape away from the roll and began wrapping it around the three dimensional cardboard cross I had made. It had begun to sag from the weight of my outstretched arms.
“…You can do that when you get back.”
I knew right away she was lying to me. I was obviously in trouble for my halloween costume–one we both understood I had chosen specifically to piss her off–and I knew that going to her office meant that she was going to make me remove it. Which meant I wouldn’t be able to do it when I got back and that she was just trying to get me out of the classroom. Knowing her game, I replied, “Do you promise?”
Three months prior I received a letter in the mail from my high school. The letter, written by a new principal whom no one had yet to meet, informed students of many changes that she had made to the school for the upcoming year. This confused me. There was a long list of changes that were said to have already been made. Big changes. Serious changes. It wasn’t confusing that the changes had been made, but rather that there was no vote by the student body to make them.
I transferred to this little alternative high school the previous year as a sophomore. The hope was that my suicidal thoughts would subside outside of mainstream compulsory schooling. My hopes quickly became a reality and though my grades continued to drop, my emotional well being increased dramatically. This was in part due to the family atmosphere of the school. We had a morning homeroom called Ohana (Literally “Family” in Hawaiian) where each morning my homeroom teacher had us lament our “thorns” and give praise for our “roses.” There was a grimy student lounge where students would play punk music, hang out on dirty old couches, and gossip every morning, lunch break, and after school. There was a resident student counselor, one of the founding members of the school, who could walk us through difficult times. I came from a school of 2000+ students, to a school with around 200. This school felt more real and more like a community than anything I had experienced. There, I felt heard. Because I felt heard, I felt loved. It gave my life meaning. This environment pulled me out of suicidal depression.
Whenever I would talk about how amazing the school was to other students, those who had been there for previous years would always reply, “It was better last year.” Though it was a running joke, it was true. Every year the school district would change things and make the school comply more with some standard or other. Many years before I arrived for example, there were no class times. Students could just show up whenever they wanted. Year after year, the school had become more compulsory.
At the end of my sophomore year, the school held a vote for two issues. One was that a local news channel had donated an old news studio to us. We voted to transform our student lounge into a film studio. This was a big deal. We gave up an aspect of the community because of our love for filmmaking. It was a democratic move. The second thing we did was vote on whether or not we should have our own dedicated principal. Prior to the following year, the school district had one principal for its two alternative high schools. The principal rarely showed their face at ours, and the vice principal who was a mainstay was a prick. As far as I remember, the entire student body voted unanimously for our own principal.
As an adult looking back, it was clear the decision was already made. The vote was merely a ruse for an alternative school that presented its students with the illusion of a democracy. This illusion was two parts: that we had a choice to begin with (we didn’t) and that our choice determined the actual outcome (it didn’t). The point was to make us feel like this was a democracy, that we had influence.
When I received the letter from the new principal several weeks before the beginning of my Junior year, I was stunned. Of the many changes, three were the most impactful. The first was that the student lounge, which we had voted on the previous year to convert into our newsroom film studio would now be converted to a teacher’s lounge. This was an inversion of power. Not only had our vote been negated, the very nature of the room was usurped for the authorities.
While the student lounge transformation was the destruction of the physical representation of our community, the most profound change, was the elimination of Ohana. The literal removal of family, the cultural representation of our community. Ohana, the very heart of the school, was completely cut out with no mention as to why. Just that it wouldn’t be there anymore.
The third major change was that anyone with less than a 2.0 grade point average would get kicked out of the school. I finished my sophomore year with a whopping 1.8. While my grades had always been low (out of my refusal to do homework), my emotional wellbeing had increased dramatically. Where was the metric for that? This meant that I ran the risk of being kicked out of the school that had turned my depression around.
In my naivete I wrote a heartfelt letter to the principal informing her that she wasn’t able to make these kinds of decisions without a vote from the student body. I gathered my best friends and they wrote letters too. I felt that it was our responsibility to educate the new principal on how the school functioned; clearly no one had told her.
My friends and I traveled to the school to hand deliver the letters. As we walked through the parking lot, I noticed a parking space with a bright new paint label, right by the front door. It read; PRINCIPAL.
We introduced ourselves to her while she opened the letters and started to read. After a few moments she stopped and looked up at us, disguising her contempt with a smile. “Um. Sorry. Yeeeah, the changes have already been made.”
Her smile was ingenuine, more like that of an animal’s grimace–the motion without the feeling. It reminded me of a special effects exhibit I went to once, where you could control an animatronic human face. With the touch of a button I could make the face smile, but there was something cold and off-putting about it. Like the cheeks upward motion to expose the teeth and create a “smile” were disconnected elements to the rest of the face.
My heart sunk and I couldn’t breathe. “No, I don’t think you understand,” I said catching my breath. “You can’t do this. This isn’t how our school works.”
“Yeeeah sorry,” She said through her grin. “There is nothing we can do now.”
“Um. No. You don’t get it.”
I stormed out of the school and immediately sprang into action. I created a flyer that listed the changes, and encouraged students to come to a local park and insisted that they bring their parents. The principal may not have to listen to me, or the student body, but she would have to listen to our parents, right? I printed several hundred and brought them to orientation day at the school when students sign up for which electives they would take. I handed them out to everyone. I even gave one to a rather confused looking principal who smiled and rolled her eyes at me.
We called in the newspapers. We called in television crews. The meeting at the park was big, and there was fury in the students and in the parents. As the school year started, I felt powerless with school days taking up most of my time and energy. Parents quickly took control of the resistance. There was an emergency meeting held at the school meant to persuade families that everything would be fine. When their feelings were dismissed in the same manner that the letters my friends and I had written were, it only ignited them further. They attended school board meetings demanding that the principal be fired (a few weeks into the school year, one of the parents argued they could sue the district as the principal had broken the division of church and state when she on more than one occasion scolded disobedient students by pulling them into her office and telling them they should be good because they would be judged by God when they died).
During these meetings the parents uncovered a narrative that made everything clear: the school was a financial drain on the district. This was a coup d’etat from the district administration. A smack down of the founding hippy’s ideology. This school was too open and wild; and it made the district look bad and it didn’t make them money. It needed to be reined in, tamed. This principal had been hired explicitly to turn the school into a money maker. Here is how she did just that.
Instead of hiring back the student counselor who had founded the school, who students relied on for counseling, she hired a PR representative to go to neighboring school districts and enlist children to the school. At the beginning of each year, schools receive money based on their enrollment. If someone in one school district travels outside of it to go to a different school district, the school they attend gets the tax money, not the district where they live. This means that the PR representative was essentially stealing students (and the tax money that comes with them) from neighboring districts outside the existing tax bracket for the school. It’s pretty ingenious actually.
In order for the school to be “marketable” in this way, it had to be a big deal. Which meant, she had to change its image. To make it more “prestigious,” she had to kick out anyone who had bad grades–often rabble rousers like me. Its reputation for being open and free had to change to become one of control, focus, and academic rigor. Which is why she cut out the punk rock student lounge. In order to increase the time we spent doing actual schoolwork (for statistical purposes), she cut out Ohana.
When this narrative was revealed, I realized I was powerless. The school board wouldn’t budge on the issue. It was a financial ultimatum: the school would either increase revenue for the district or it would shut down. This wasn’t a battle we could win. It wasn’t even a battle worth fighting. If an environment that created happiness for me wasn’t financially viable, then the system was completely broken. I decided that high school wasn’t going to teach me the things I needed to learn anyhow, nor was it a place that made me feel emotionally fulfilled. At the age of sixteen I could just drop out and start going to college for free (the school district pays for this with the same tax money that would go to a normal high school). In late October of my Junior year, this is exactly what I decided to do.
It was Halloween, and I had nothing left to lose. With a large cardboard cross, a long, brown hair wig from the costume bin in the film classroom, and the white sheet that protected the editing equipment as my shroud, the costume was complete.
“Just come with me. Now.” She responded impatiently.
“Should I bring the cross with me?” I said as I lifted it off the desk.
“It doesn’t matter.”
I turned and followed her out of the classroom. She escorted me down the halls of the temple she had defiled for financial gain. I carried the cross. The significance of the biblical metaphor never crossed my mind: I was just being defiant with what little agency I had left. I couldn’t change the system, but at least I could just be a thorn in her side, to show her that I couldn’t be broken. That I couldn’t be domesticated. That was the last time I spoke to her and the last day I attended high school. That year the school had the highest drop out rate in its history. That was to be expected. You can’t appear prestigious with a school full of punks and anarchists.
Her plan worked. The school is considered to be “thriving” today, but it is a shadow of what it was. It isn’t actually the same school at all, it’s just in the same building and carries the same name. Of all the gutting that the principal did to the heart of the school, the resistance that I sparked was at the least, successful in bringing back Ohana. Not for me, but for everyone to come after that time. It still exists there today.
Many years later I heard there was a celebration happening at the school for its 20th year anniversary and all previous students were invited. I went to the celebration to see old friends and favorite teachers. During the presentation, the orater told of the school’s past financial trouble and how this principal had “saved the school.” In the same breath, to emphasize how important it was that the school was saved, he said, “…and come on, what other school has Ohana?” The crowd cheered for her. She gutted the heart of the school in order to “save it” and a movement of angry students and parents fought hard for Ohana, the one bit of heart they would eventually let us keep–and now she was getting credit for it? If I were still 16, I would have conjured my inner John Belushi and coughed “bullshit” until I was physically thrown out. Now I’m older and wiser. I know that the conquerors write the history books. I know I need to pick my battles wisely. This school and its history is just a tiny microcosm of the larger dominant culture of imperialism, colonization, domestication and its attempts to extinguish the wild & free. I took a deep breath and moved on: I’ve got much bigger fish to fry.