Sunday, January 9, 2011
BRENDA STARR, FACEBOOK, LEE HARVEY OSWALD, THE AMERICAN LEGION, THE PULITZER PRIZE and COINCIDENCE
Brenda Starr, Facebook, Lee Harvey Oswald, The American Legion, The Pulitzer Prize, and Coincidence
In 1969 I was teaching English in Woodbury, New Jersey, which at the time was considered to be – statistically speaking – a perfect reflection of America. Its profile matched the national average in terms of census materials.
One day, on a whim, I announced to my seventh and eight grade classes that I would sponsor a Junior High Student Literary Magazine. This, despite the fact that I had absolutely no experience in publishing. None, nada. I suppose my youthful dream to be a famous (and hopefully wealthy) writer prompted my spur of the moment announcement. A half dozen kids volunteered to be editors and I asked of some four hundred students that any materials created outside of school assignments - writings and drawings and such – be submitted to be considered for publication. I had access to a manual typewriter, a mimeograph machine, a saddle-stitch stapler and reams of paper. Thirteen students turned in materials, all of which was published in Woodbury’s first Junior High School Student Literary Magazine.
Within a week of publication and distribution to the students and staff, I was called into the office of one, Russ Hawk, my principal, who tells me, quite bluntly, that people want me fired. Some school board members, the Elks Club, the American Legion, the VFW. And others. He tells me, “Powerful people here in Woodbury are saying that you are ‘un-American.”
He continues with questions and pronouncements. “What were you thinking when you published Charlotte Lucas’ writings? Many believe you wrote her journal entries. That the writing is just too good to be that of a fourteen-year-old eighth grader. Did you write under her name? Ultimately, the decision to fire or not fire is mine. So, Ed, what do you have to say for yourself? Did you think you could get away with publishing all that anti-war crap?”
Now keep in mind: this is a time of things like people burning draft cards, my huge Afro (maybe the largest in the state of New Jersey!), and AMERICA: LOVE IT or LEAVE IT! bumper stickers, the era of drafting eighteen year olds – who could not vote - for a war, that, in hindsight, proved to be a disastrous disgrace. The first massive national anti-war demonstration had occurred in the fall in Washington DC, but, for the most part, what would come to be called The Silent Majority was staunchly hawkish, supporting the war and the politicians, our leaders, who choose to make war not love. What Russ Hawk is telling me is that The Silent Majority wants me fired because of what fourteen-year-old Charlotte Lucas had written about in her diary and I had published in our Student Literary Magazine.
At the aforementioned anti-war rally in Washington DC – the largest anti-government policy protest in the history of the United States, Charlotte was present as her father was an anti-war activist and organizer. On her birthday, Charlotte, her dad, and other pacifists had traveled to Washington, D.C. by car and through a series of quirky, yet pragmatic, events Charlotte wound up being chosen to light the flame that would kick off the largest protest rally in the history of our nation’s Capitol. And Charlotte journal-ed her experiences as only young impressionable (and gifted) writers do: with complete honesty. Her journal was rife with anti-war sentiment and peppered with jokes about Agnew and Nixon, a perfect parroting of the rhetoric of America’s anti-establishment movement. Now, I must admit, I “edited” Charlotte’s writing: a semi-colon here, a misspelled word there, but, if truth be told, Charlotte at age fourteen was a better writer than I was at twenty-one. Rating all the materials we published in the little zine on a scale of one to ten, Charlotte’s diary entries were a ninety-nine in comparison to the others. None, myself included, were in Charlotte’s league.
So, I tell Hawk, “First off, I did not write Charlotte’s diary entries, and you know that. She’s got talent and you, Woodbury, and the world will just have to deal with being subject to her scrutiny. She writes what she sees and she’s got a gift that should be encouraged, not censored.”
And I continue, “Mr. Hawk, I understand that Charlotte’s slant on things is certainly “anti-war.” But, know this: had a student turned in writing that was “pro-war” it, too, would have been published as we, the student editors and I, we published everything submitted. We turned down no one. The Student Literary Magazine is about nurturing creativity and providing the opportunity for kids to experience the honor and thrill of seeing their writing and names in print. In a magazine of their own creation. Of being part of something that wasn’t there before. Still, I understand your dilemma. Those supporting the draft and the Viet Nam War, the hawks in town, want me fired for publishing a child’s take on war and its protest because it’s a minority position, to be anti-war. That’s plain wrong. So I ask, who are you gonna stand with, Russ? Your drinking buddies at The American Legion or with me, your fellow professional educator? Do we uphold the notion of free speech in our school or do we let people like those who want me fired dictate the terms of our freedoms?” And to add weight to my stance I remind my ex-military principal - with all the innuendo that comes with it – that I am the current president and contract negotiator for the Woodbury Public School Teachers Association, some two hundred strong, reminding him further that I know the workings and subtleties of our contract, given the fact, that I just finished negotiating next year’s. “And Russ,” I submit, “there is simply no good contractual reason to fire me. Please, stand by your teachers, not your ex-army drinking buddies at The American Legion.”
Cocky, sure. Confident, no. And believe you me: a lot was riding on my job, not the least of which was the draft deferment that came with my position. I know that if I were to lose my job, I’d be drafted in a heartbeat. My next stop would most assuredly be Viet Nam.
Taken back a bit by my unapologetic resolve, Hawk tells me: he’ll think about it, a stay of execution of sorts, as at the beginning of our conference, it seemed I’d been summoned to his office to be summarily and unceremoniously fired. And, in fact, to Russ Hawk’s credit, I am not fired. And, furthermore, I get to orchestrate some delightful payback, one of the favorite pastimes of my kind of Irish.
At the end of every school year at the graduation assembly, awards are given to various students. Highest GPA, Best Athlete, Most Academically Improved, etc. And, my nemesis, The American Legion - the principal organization that had lobbied for my firing – gives an award and a two hundred dollar prize to the Student Citizen of the Year, someone chosen by the Student Council, a student organization to which I was the faculty adviser. Believe me, I made sure, behind closed doors, that the student council choose Charlotte as the recipient as she was easily the only student who actively participated in citizenry, and (hee, hee) knowing as adviser to the student council, that I would be the one who would present the award to Charlotte. Well, as you might imagine, the assembly hall got downright foggy, what with the steam roiling out of the ears of the American Legion members who were present, front row center, when I declared Charlotte “Citizen of the Year” and handed her the American Legion’s check.
So, now I’ve covered the American Legion angle to this story, and here’s the connection with Brenda Starr, Facebook, Lee Harvey Oswald, The Pulitzer Prize and coincidence.
A year or so ago, through FACEBOOK, a former student from my days in Woodbury contacted and befriended me on FACEBOOK, a contact that resulted with my reconnection with literally dozens of former students from the late Sixties and early Seventies, people now in their fifties. I asked some who wrote if they had any news of Charlotte, as she was the star writer of my first foray into publishing. After all these years - over forty – some remembered her name but no one seemed to now what became of her. And then one day while connecting via FACEBOOK with yet another student of mine from sixty-nine I see on my wall that my latest acquaintance had just been befriended by one Charlotte Anne Lucas. Within the hour Charlotte and I were FACEBOOK friends, Charlotte’s Facebook profile photo being that of the comic book investigative reporter and heroine, Brenda Starr. And here is the text of Charlotte’s first message to me:
Finally! Thank goodness for Facebook. You don't know how many times I put my investigative reporting skills to work trying to find you so I could thank you! Thanks to the encouragement you gave me to write about the anti-war rally on my 14th birthday in 1969, I went on to become a journalist. I've worked all over the U.S., written thousands of news articles, and won a ton of awards, including being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism back in 1985. I went to the Web in '99, and have run some pretty large news sites. For a couple of years, I "commuted" from San Antonio to UNLV to teach online journalism, Web publishing and design and had a blast. It never occurred to me how much I would love being a teacher. For the past 18 months, I've been standing up a community journalism website that is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to try and explore new ways to gather and deliver news and information. The site is www.nowcastsa.com Here's my somewhat stale blog, some parts of which you might enjoy: http://charlotteanne.wordpress.com/about/ I spend a lot of time on Twitter and wrote a "Twitter 101" for my students eons ago (OK, 2007). I describe myself now as an Online Instigator and Rapporteur. I would write more, but I am trying to finish an annual report for my board of directors, and I'll probably blog that later. I am soooooo glad you found me! We have much to catch up on over the Web and, hopefully, over cocktails one of these days!”
In subsequent messages she thanked me for inspiring her to do crazy things as an investigative and instigating reporter, telling me she once scaled a fence in disguise to be present at the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald’s body when it was transferred to a better casket as his original was made of wood. I guess she needed to see for herself that there indeed was a body in the casket. When I mentioned this Oswald tidbit to a know-it-all friend of mine - a know-it-all because she reads the New York Times every day of her life – my friend with great emphasisl declared that Lee Harvey’s Oswald’s body had never been exhumed, casting a minor shadow of doubt on my belief in what Charlotte had told me.
And the funny thing is this: within in days of reconnecting with Charlotte I came across two articles in The Denver Post. First, it was reported that Brenda Starr, the syndicated comic heroine of the strip by the same name, was retiring and that the last installment would be in the Chicago Tribune in late December. And then this: the wooden casket of Lee Harvey Oswald had sold on e-bay for some eighty-seven thousand dollars.
I just love coincidence although I have no idea what it means. What I do know is this: every action has consequences beyond our wildest imaginings.