The Wind in My Pillows

The average tenure for a high school journalism advisor is three years. I lasted fifteen. Those were my dancing years. The role of a journalism advisor is akin to a dance in which the right to free speech leads, while the fear of libel follows. But where does poor taste fit in?

As one might guess, I encountered many a frisky reporter over the years. My students were smart and capable and precocious. I was capable and precocious, so it worked.

Aspiring journalists, graphic artists, and photographers started hanging around Room N-9 as early as their sophomore years, hoping to make an impression on the advisor.

Good Morning. I’d like to welcome you all to Journalism I and II, home of The Smoke Signal, our award winning student newspaper. My name is Mrs. Sabraw. I will be your instructor and advisor, roles which put me into an inherent conflict. My maiden name is Block, but that does not mean I am a square. {New students laugh.}

In reality, I was a square.

In this room, language and how we use it, matters. How we report the news, matters. Headlines we choose, matter. Photographs, political cartoons, columns, and captions, matter.

Your finished pieces, artwork, and photos I will grade. {New students’ expressions change from happy to serious.}

Regarding language in the high school classroom and paper: There are ten words we do not use in this room. You can hear these words out in the quad, in the music and movies that entertain you, and at the mall but not in our stories or in Room N-9. These words are not descriptive, unless for example, you stub your toe on a metal coffee table in the middle of the night. Then one of these words might help blow off pain and steam.

What are these words, Mrs. Sabraw?

I am not going to tell you because I do not use that language in my classroom. {New students look disappointed.}

If we don’t know which words not to use, how will we know not to use them? {Rhetorical question}

And so the dance began.

One of my most memorable dancing partners was a kid named Evan.

That Evan carried a blanket around school with him at the age of 17 was not a problem for me. After all, I was his teacher, not his parent.

That he refused to prepare for vocabulary tests, reading quizzes, or any other symbol of the Man wasn’t either.

That he sat on the back couch in my room as my teaching assistant, swaddled in his blanket while correcting student quizzes didn’t faze me.

Evan was needy. He was also brilliant. And he cracked me up.

When I told Evan that his quips from the couch, while I was teaching English, made us a funny team, he smiled and asked if we were like Johnny Carson and Ed Mc Mahon or Groucho Marx and George Finneman.

He read widely and wrote well. People accepted him for his smarts and humor.

In journalism, Evan became a columnist and in that role, he found his calling. He and I danced around the First Amendment in a West Coast Swing. We debated a Supreme Court Ruling called Hazelwood.

You know, Even, First Amendment rights for high school journalists are different from those of professional journalists.

Even had a problem with this distinction.

One day, Evan decided to write a trashy fable about the administration. It reminded me of a poor copy of The Wind and The Willows. Here is the beginning:

“Along the banks of Mission Creek lived three furry critters—Rat, Mouse, and Beaver—and an insect—Gnat. If truth be told, they were wholly feckless. Especially Beaver. Defying her genetic predisposition, Beaver spent her days grooming her tail, wondering about her reputation, and eating Triscuits. Rat, whose given name was Dick, amused himself by scavenging through the trash cans at the local high school. On many of his trips, up the creek bank, across the student parking lot, and into the N-Wing, he collected copies of the student newspaper, The Smoke Signal, lying scattered all over the grounds. He had taken to reading a brilliant column, Through the Looking Glass, written by an insightful person.
Since many other creatures inhabited the creek, all of whom depended on the leadership of Rat, Mouse, Beaver, and Gnat, the Four busied themselves attending meetings and issuing edicts.”

The column continued in a sordid way with Beaver and Dick, the lascivious rat.

Even the dullest member of humanity could see that the four critters were the principal, the vice-principal and the two assistant principals.

But Beaver and Dick presented an editorial conundrum.

Evan loved the entangled sexual mystery unfolding in his column and was sure that I, as the provincial square, missed the joke. So, I let his pleasure cure, like a pickle.

First drafts of all stories were due on Monday morning by 11:00 a.m. and went to the editors for review. Evan met with Elizabeth, the Editorial Editor, about his column. Elizabeth loved his piece and called the Features Editor over for back up. Should this column stay or should it go?

It should stay, definitely. So the column, entitled The Wind in My Pillow, found itself ready for review, on my desk. On the square’s desk.

I called Evan over for the perfunctory conference.

This fable seems symbolic. Is it?

Mrs. Sabraw, really, you have made your life’s work finding symbolism, even in rocks. Good job. Yes, an allegorical element resides in this fable.

Well, Evan. This fable is tasteless and crass. There are other ways to make your point about administrative failure than in this way.

The following week, the routine repeated. Thursday arrived. Evan sat on the couch wrapped in his blanket with his fable. The newspaper deadline was one day away.

Elizabeth convened an editors’ meeting on the south side of N-9 again, far away from me. They were puppies up to no good. Evan arrived with his fable, newly named, The Beaver in the Office. All systems were go. Evan got the green light {He remarked later how Jay Gatsby had seen the same green light at the end of Daisy’s pier.}

Evan and I met. {Again}

Funny how things got quiet that morning in the journalism room.

Here’s the final draft, Mrs. Sabraw. I think you’re gonna love this one.

I reread. {Editors and reporters, alike, smirked in the superior knowledge that this square, this bastion of banal bull, was getting snookered, big time.}

Evan, this isn’t going in the paper.

Mrs. Sabraw, give me one good reason why my words, assembled with creativity in my fable, full of humor and symbolism, aren’t being published? This is censorship. I am calling the ACLU. Mrs. Sabraw?

Atmospheric pressure in Room N-9 plunged that day with the utterance of THAT word. {Censorship}

The humming room became as quiet as a courtroom before the verdict is read.

Evan, I may be a square, but I know what a dick is.



About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Wind in My Pillows

  1. says:

    Oh boy, this reminds me of that entire genre of Dick-Cheney and Colon-Powell “jokes”. The sooner a young writer is disabused of the wisdom of this path the better. Would love to know what happened to Evan’s writing career…

  2. Queenie says:

    You’re a saint!

  3. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    So would I.He is one of the few who have not let me know whom he is impacting and what he is doing.


    No saint. Teachers around the world are doing the same…trying to teach values and find the best in each student.

  4. ♥ Kathy says:

    My kids arrived for Spring Break last night and brought one of my High School yearbooks with them. It’s funny that you wrote this because one of the things we were looking at was my journalism adventures. I loved that class and I loved my teacher! Y’all rock 😀

  5. lakeviewer says:

    Cheri, I get a kick out of each and every one of your posts. You’re a smart cookie, indeed. I’d like to be able to share your comment from last week’s post on education.
    Tuesdays will be spent on issues involving education. People who are in the trenches know way more than any of us who are sitting and pontificating from afar.

    (Regardless of how much time we spent in the field, those who are still working have a much more intimate understanding.)

    If I don’t hear from you, I will not quote you.
    Fair? I would have been a great newspaper advisor, except with folks like your Evan. Wait, we do have a newspaper man here in town, Evan Cramer. Could he be the one and the same?

    Weird, if it were true.

    I do have another question: when you were an advisor, had the Supreme Court ruled already in favor of student journalists? Curious.

    I advised in a private setting-much easier.

  6. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Hi Rosaria,

    Yes, but the Supreme Court’s ruling was limiting. The Hazelwood Decision limited the rights of student journalists.It came out of a case from Hazelwood, Missouri. I have forgotten the specifics…had to relearn them after we (the district, the principal, the editors, and I narrowly avoided a libel lawsuit on another matter.

    California’s rights for student journalists are some of the most liberal in the country, and my little band of detectives, caused the dance I was trying to describe.

    Although I characterized it as a West Coast Swing, perhaps memory spruced it up, a bit.

    As I reflect now, it seemed more like break dancing. And to think I was paid 600.00 a year for such stress…

    Evan is not the real name of this young man. Changed to protect the guilty.

    From what I have read on your blog, you would have made a splendid advisor!

  7. Christopher says:

    “…….There are ten words we do not use in this room…..”

    I’ll opine that most of these words, whatever they are, will one day become uttered with a yawn, and therefore will be so passe that they’ll be common and accepted currency in schoolrooms everywhere.

    Maybe, today, six years on, some are even now routinely used in schoolrooms without teachers becoming choleric?

    • Cheri says:

      You are absolutely correct although were I to teach again at the high school level, I am sure I would give this same little speech. The sad but not surprising new motif to this narration is that many teachers use this colorful language in their classrooms….bad….very bad.

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