Principals & Principles

By now you’ve probably seen the headline on MSN: Partially Clothed Principal Arrested with Student in Car.

It’s a titillating and tantalizing phrase referencing the arrest of a person of authority who was caught in a compromising position and charged with some sort of salacious crime. And in case that isn’t enough to get some people to read on, the writers of that headline made sure to leave out the age and gender of both the principal and the student, as well as the type of school and the grades served.

It’s pure genius from a media and marketing standpoint. You’ll not only get the folks who love a juicy scandal to read it; you’ll also whet the appetites of all the crazy helicopter parents who’ll want to devour the story just to see how close their own child may have gotten to coming in contact with this monster. You’ll also capture the attention of those who favor this or that sort of school over some other sort of school in the hope of finding within the story some tasty nugget that bolsters their own argument and/or justifies the choices they have made. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll pique the interest of those who think the country—if not the entire world—is going to hell in a handbasket, who will want to grab all the details they can from the story so they can add them to the mountain of evidence they present whenever they attempt to prove it.

Now if only I could claim to have read the story for one of these reasons.

Unfortunately my motive for clicking on the headline was even less honorable than either of those. That may be hard for some of you to believe since there would seem to be few less honorable reasons for reading about a scandal than those I’ve outlined above. It will be less difficult for regular visitors to this page since by now you are well acquainted with the dark and twisted nature of this beautiful mind.

So why did I click on the story if not to gloat about the educational choices I’ve made on behalf of my progeny or to pad my verbal arsenal with facts and figures to promote some personal or political agenda?

To answer that, I must first take you back to my high school days when, as a newly minted senior I encountered a principal who was vastly different from any of the half dozen or so principals I had met during the previous 11 years of my education. This principal was not the kind who would, for example, show that he was your FRIEND by pointing to the existence of the word PAL in the last syllable of his job title. Nor was this principal the kind who, upon finding a disruptive kid in his office, would attempt to build a relationship with that kid in hopes of improving his or her attitude or motivating him or her to do better in the future.

No. This new principal, who—sadly—replaced someone who WAS that kind of principal, treated the entire student body like criminals. From the moment classes started that year, it was clear he thought of us as not students to be mentored but as inmates to be monitored and managed. The man refused to call us students, kids, or even PEOPLE. Instead he referred to us as INDIVIDUALS and spoke the word itself as if what he really meant was UNTOUCHABLES.

Although ours was a small town school in rural Minnesota and about the worst thing anyone did at our school was forget to take the can of chew out of their back pocket before walking into the building in the morning, this man walked the halls with the swagger of an armed prison guard, admonishing us to walk not talk, and reminding us that ‘It’s 5% of INDIVIDUALS who ruin it for the other 95%.’

Even if you were what the other faculty members considered a good kid, you could not escape the harassment or unfavorable judgment. Case in point: During a routine senior counseling session with this principal (wherein he would ask an INDIVIDUAL about his or her post-secondary aspirations, and then pretend he wasn’t bored) I informed him of my intention to apply for admission to Macalester College.

It was a gutsy plan given that I came from the wrong side of the tracks, had no money nor family connections and, unlike my fellow seniors, was working to support myself in addition to going to high school. But I was young and stupid, so I shared my plans with him in the naïve hope of receiving advice and encouragement, and perhaps an offer to provide a letter of recommendation. Instead, I was cautioned not to set my hopes too high and provided some sobering statistics on the odds of any INDIVIDUAL getting into one of Minnesota’s elite colleges—much less an INDIVIDUAL with my background.

Fortunately, I’m big on proving meanies and morons wrong. And so, upon receiving my letter of acceptance a few weeks later, I walked into the principal’s office, handed him the document, and watched as he absorbed its meaning. Then, after giving him an opportunity to congratulate me—which he squandered by instead vocalizing his abject incredulity—I offered him a few carefully chosen words about his approach to his job—in particular as it related to rural, low-income, and disadvantaged kids—and left with the unexpressed hope that I would live to see that snide, self-righteous, bastard fall from grace. And hard.

And so, it was with a great deal of glee and gusto that I clicked on that link—hoping with all my heart to find HIS face in a mugshot and HIS name underneath. I know it takes a pretty sick and cynical mind to revel in the mistakes and misfortunes of others, but man would it have been nice to see him treated like criminal. Even if the treatment he received was warranted and his treatment of us was not, it would have been wonderful to see him dodging cameras, dragged before a court, and judged.

I knew it was a longshot. He was our principal more than 30 years ago after all, and at his current age—assuming he’s still alive—has little chance of being caught in a state of partial undress with anyone apart from the members of his geriatric care team. Still, if someone had to get caught in a car in a state of partial undress with a student, it may as well have been HIM.

And thanks to the wording of that one juicy headline—for a few delicious minutes, anyway—it was.


Truth and Confer-ences

Let me first apologize for the title of this post. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bad pun. That’s the first truth in this story. The second truth is that I LOVE a bad pun. The badder the better, as far as I’m concerned.

But the real star of this post is neither the pun nor the truth, but the confer-ences. Specifically writers’ confer-ences.

If you’re not a writer yourself, you may experience an irrepressible urge to flee or fall asleep at the mention of the such an event. Even some of us who ARE writers may bristle at the idea. For although most writers enjoy writing, not all of us enjoy talking about writing.

Now when I say I may not enjoy talking about writing, I don’t mean talking about what I write. In truth–there it is again–that’s the easy part for me. The characters in my books and short stories–not only those I’ve published but also those still fluttering around in my head–are all so real to me, that I can carry on about them for hours and hours provided I have the time, space, and access to a willing audience. And sometimes even the willing isn’t a requirement.

So what gives me trouble is not talking about WHAT I write, but talking about the HOW. I know it’s sometimes necessary to talk about things like character development and plot pacing; but for me, talking about the elements of a story is like talking about the ingredients of a gourmet meal or a decadent dessert: I know they’re important, but I’d rather talk about the dish or the dessert itself–what it tastes like or what kind of wine to pair with it–rather than the taste, smell, color or consistency of all the stuff that went into it.

It’s not that I don’t care about the elements of a good story. Combine the wrong ingredients–to use the cooking metaphor, again–and you may not get what you set out to make. To paraphrase Rita Rudner, you can mix flour and water to make glue, but if you add sugar and eggs (and baking soda) you’ll get cake.

So the components ARE important when it comes to food–and the same is true for a story–be it a novel or a bit of flash fiction. If you don’t have the right elements, you may not get the product you’re aiming for. But for me, I’d rather talk about the story itself–the characters, what they do, and where, when, how and why.

Which is why this weekend you will find me at the Lakefly Writers Conference at the Waterfront Hotel and Convention Center in Oshkosh. I won’t be presenting on any of the elements of writing. Nor will I be attending any of the workshops discussing any of the elements of writing.

Instead you’ll find me at a table at the Author’s Showcase. I’ll be there, behind a stack of my books and bookmarks, talking about my stories–but not necessarily how I wrote them or why.