Friday, March 14, 2014


I wrote last September about controversial happenings in the Sheridan School District.  Back then, the uproar was about teachers who had invited a Muslim speaker to address their classes on September 11, in order to give another perspective on the events of that day 12 years before.  Reportedly, the speaker was to surprise everyone by strongly condemning the terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam.  Well, that wouldn't be surprising to everyone, just to those uninformed of the fact that almost all American Muslims (and almost all Muslims, period) are opposed to terrorism.

There is controversy in another quarter today, emanating from the high school.  It seems that the yearbook staff had put together a series of six profiles on various students.  One of those profiles focused on Taylor Ellis.  Taylor, a junior, is noteworthy at Sheridan because he is openly gay.  More on the controversy in a moment.

Sheridan is a place of contradictions.  Its schools are among the best in the state in terms of student opportunity and achievement, having been led by a long series of capable administrators who care deeply about those things.  It is in many respects the same rural-oriented small town it was when my grandparents grew up there; religion plays a central role in almost everyone's lives there, and with that there is a kind of built-in conservatism at work.

Sheridan also has a history of some racial tension; until the last census, the minority population in the town was almost zero, and it's still low.  (The school district draws students from a geographically wide area that includes minority communities, which makes the schools much larger and more diverse than the city proper.  When I was in school, the total attendance at Sheridan Schools exceeded the population of the city.)  But the handful of black students who attended at the same time I did were among the most popular students in the school.

When I lived there, Sheridan had the reputation of being behind the times.  We used to joke that when the world ends, we want to be in Sheridan, because everything happens 20 years later there.

I don't have any special insight into conditions at the high school, and I don't know Taylor Ellis.  But I have to believe that the fact that Taylor is openly gay and willing to be profiled on that subject in the yearbook for all eternity has to say something, not just about Taylor, but also about how not-controversial this subject is for the students.  After all, Taylor isn't "coming out" in the yearbook. He's already out.  If his being out were really problematic for his safety and the order and discipline of the school, those problems would already be seen.  And from what I can tell, they're just not.

But the school administration has been putting pressure on Taylor and on the yearbook staff to pull the profile, going so far as to attempt to censor the entire series outright.  According to the Student Press Law Center, that censorship probably runs afoul of Arkansas law, which is surprisingly progressive on this point.  State law recognizes students' right of free expression in school publications and gives ultimate editorial control to students except in certain limited circumstances that don't appear to apply here.

Principal Rodney Williams has declined to comment publicly about this dispute, but his position on the matter has been reported by various outlets--he's against the publication.  I don't know Principal Williams at all, so I have no idea whether he is motivated by anti-gay bias (which strikes me as unlikely; public-school educators, especially administrators, tend to be progressive because of their education level).  What seems more likely to me is that Principal Williams is trying to quell the potential for controversy.

There is a tendency for people who are responsible for administering large organizations to attempt to avoid controversy by enforcing homogeneity and minimizing "otherness" and diversity.  I saw it in 12 years living near Charlotte; the city's obvious problems were often swept under the rug by city officials who were desperate to portray the city as "Tidy Town."  That is, it probably isn't so much that Principal Williams is against Taylor being gay, as it is that he wants to whitewash the whole thing.

Ironically, Principal Williams has probably invited more attention and controversy than would have occurred had he simply ignored what was going on.  He is not the first person to misjudge the mood of a place based upon its reputation.

And, really, in my experience, the people who care about what's written in the yearbook are pretty much limited to (1) those on the yearbook staff and (2) the people who are written about.  Most people are instead interested in seeing how many times they appear in it and in how many cool messages they can have inscribed in it by their friends.

I was never on the yearbook staff, but I did write for the school newspaper, a monthly publication we tried very hard to make as professional and as interesting as possible.  We knew that one issue was going to be submitted for competitions, and we wanted to show that our staff could compete with other schools particularly when it came to editorial writing.  We picked a controversial topic that was in the news frequently at that time.  Back then, there was routinely a public--expressly Christian--prayer given over the loudspeaker at football games.  We took a strong position against it on the basis that not everyone is a Christian, that public money furnishes the equipment and the audience, and that if we are going to have Christian prayers we could be forced to offer prayers of other religions, including that great bugaboo of small towns, the devil-worshipers.

We thought it was going to draw some controversy, and the principal, though sympathetic, did ask whether we were sure we wanted to take a position.  But when it came out, we got virtually no response.  I'd like to think it's because we were so convincing in our argument that we won over the opposition.  But mostly, I think, it was because a lot fewer people cared about it than we expected.*

* - For the record, they didn't stop the prayers on our account.  I don't know if they still have them.  Maybe I'll find my way down there for a football game this fall to find out.

And so it is likely to be for the article about Taylor Ellis.  I am glad we live in an era in which even in Sheridan, Taylor feels free to express himself as he actually is.  I'm not sure even he realizes how monumental that really is.  There are people my age, or close to it, who were closeted while in school, and it would have been nigh unto unthinkable for them to be "out" at that time, much less talking about it in the yearbook.  That's a shame, but it was the world we lived in.  I like the world we're living in now, and I'm excited for a future in which the Taylor Ellises of the world generate no controversy by being themselves.  That's simply a matter of human rights.

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