As Matthew walked out of the school he saw the piece of paper lying on the grass. A litterbug was about. He picked it up and, not being near a trash receptacle, stuffed it into his pocket.
It wasn’t until after he arrived home and was digging in the same pocket for something else that his fingers encountered it again. He pulled it out, ready to throw it away. Something had been printed on the crumpled paper by a computer. Curious, he smoothed it as well as he could and read the heading. “A Students Should Be Abolished.”
Matthew snickered as he read it again. What atrocious grammar. He read some more, ready for another laugh, and suddenly he realized what the heading meant. He quickly read the whole thing:
A STUDENTS SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
A students aren’t fair to the rest of us and should be abolished. Kids who get mostly A’s think there so smart. Well they aren’t. There dumb. They are teachers pets. Do you think they would get good grades if teachers didn’t like them? No way. If they was gone then us guys who don’t suck up to teachers wood stand a chance. This is what should happen:
- Anybody who gets more than half A’s should be kicked out of school.
- They should not be aloud back in school unless they sign a form saying they wont suck up to teachers.
- If they come back to school there grades for subjex they took before should be changed to all C’s.
“What’s that?” Mason had come up behind Matthew and was trying to read over his shoulder.
Matthew held the paper up high where his younger and shorter brother couldn’t reach it. “Sorry, confidential.”
Mason jumped for it a couple of times and threatened to tear it, so Matthew made a show of being magnanimous and let him read it.
Mason quickly devoured the words and then looked up, frowning. “This is terrible. Whoever Equal Man is shouldn’t be allowed to print this garbage. He should be—drawn and quartered.” Mason remembered the phrase from a book he had just read.
Matthew laughed. “It’s somebody’s idea of a joke. It was done by one of our classmates with too much time on his hands.”
“Or her hands. It doesn’t look like a joke to me. Somebody hates us.”
“Don’t take it personally, Mason. Not everybody is going to like you. Especially people who can’t spell.”
Matthew patted Mason on the head. Then he threw the paper away and promptly forgot about it.
The next day at the school students were buzzing together in small groups. Matthew’s friend Jimmy joined him in the hall on the way to their classroom. “Did you see that nasty piece about kicking all the good students out of school?”
“Yeah, I saw it. How did you get one?”
“It’s all over the place. Kids are handing them out. Teachers started confiscating them, so now they’re handing them out beyond the school grounds where teachers can’t touch them.”
“You’re not taking it seriously, are you?”
“It is serious. The school is being divided into two groups.”
“What, the smart kids and the dumb kids?”
“Except they’re calling themselves the deserving kids and us the suckers, because we supposedly suck up to teachers.”
“Does anybody know who started this?”
“Nobody will say. There are rumors. One rumor is that it may have been started by an adult—a parent of one of our classmates.” Jimmy said “adult” as if it were a dirty word.
“Not an adult.” Matthew gasped in mock horror. Maybe this would liven things up around the school. Classes had been a little boring, lately.
Mason’s teacher was having a hard time keeping order. The students were still chattering about the flyers, although none was in sight. Any kid who had managed to hang onto one kept it hidden.
Miss Knoblock tried a number of times to direct the kids’ attention to math class, without notable success. Finally, she said, “All right, since you want to talk about flyers, let’s talk about them. Who can tell me why they’re not being allowed on school grounds?”
Cindy raised her hand. “Because they’re disruptive. An atmosphere in which people are fighting and arguing isn’t conducive to learning. Besides, they’re poorly written, with lots of spelling and grammatical errors.”
Miss Knoblock laughed. “At least we know you didn’t write the words on the flyer, not with your vocabulary. Jason.”
Mason knew that Jason was not an “A” student, so he was one of the people the flyer was supposedly designed to help.
Jason thought for a few seconds before he started speaking. “I think school is pretty good the way it is. It shouldn’t be changed. Whoever is trying to change things shouldn’t be allowed to. And the paper says bad things about the good students, and that’s not nice.”
He was following the party line. Trying to “suck up,” to use the words of the flyer. Nobody else raised a hand. What had been a lively discussion when not monitored by an authority figure had fizzled. Mason wasn’t satisfied with that. Although he didn’t like what the flyer said, something was gnawing inside him. He raised his hand.
Miss Knoblock looked at him. “Well, Mason, what words of wisdom do you have for us?”
“No words of wisdom, just questions. Does this mean that only teachers and principals decide what can be talked about on school grounds? And how do they make those decisions?”
“Of course you can talk about whatever you wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your education. Our job is to do what is best for you. Do you want to be kicked out of school because you’re an “A” student?”
“No, of course not.”
“Do you like being called a ‘suck up’?”
Mason shrugged. “I’ve been called worse. That may just be a joke.”
Before Mason could say anything else, Miss Knoblock launched into a sermon, whose point seemed to be that whatever decisions the school authorities made were for the benefit of the students, and that they shouldn’t be questioned. She obviously didn’t have a sense of humor about the flyer.
At home after school, Matthew and Mason were eating a snack when Mason asked Matthew what he thought about the flyers being confiscated at school.
Matthew, who was a historian, among other things, said, “Do you know who Voltaire was?”
“Some dude from Star Wars?”
“I see a need to improve your knowledge. Just a minute.”
Matthew ran upstairs and came down with a book. “Grandpa wrote, or rather edited, this book. It’s called Freedom’s Light: Quotations from History’s Champions of Freedom. Voltaire is one of the people it quotes. He lived during the eighteenth century. I’ll read you the quote: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”
Mason thought. “That’s confusing. It sounds like he’s saying that it’s all right to disagree with him.”
“Well, yeah. Do you think you should be able to shut up everybody who disagrees with you?”
“Only when I get tired of being disagreed with.”
“Very funny. Let’s take the case of the flyer. Whoever wrote the flyer disagrees with how the school is run. Is that a reason for the principal and teachers to shut him up?”
Mimicking Miss Knoblock, Mason said, “Do you want to be kicked out of school because you’re an ‘A’ student?”
“Okay, it’s obvious that you disagree with this person. Haven’t you ever had a bad idea?”
“Someone else may have thought an idea I had was bad—once or twice.”
“Does that give this someone else the right to shut you up?”
“No. It’s a free country.”
“Ahhh. It’s a free country when you disagree with someone else, but not when someone else disagrees with you.”
“Sure. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
“You can’t have it both ways. What makes it a free country?”
“What specifically in the Constitution?”
“The…Bill of Rights.”
“I see you’re not completely ignorant. I just happen to have a copy with me.” Matthew took a miniature copy of the Constitution out of his pocket and turned to the section on the Bill of Rights. “First amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law—dot dot dot—abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, dot dot dot.’”
“So what the school is doing is unconstitutional?”
“Do you think the Constitution is a good thing?”
“All these questions. Of course I do. The Constitution guarantees our freedom. Without it we could be under the control of tyrants, of which there are many in the world.”
Mason felt better. Matthew had put into words the doubts he’d been having. “Then what are we going to do about this situation?”
Now Matthew had to think. “We don’t want to start a storm in an iced tea glass. Let’s wait and see if this blows over.”
It didn’t blow over. Next morning on the school bus, Matthew went to the back as he usually did to sit with several boys. As he was about to sit down, Bill said, “There’s no room for you here. Go sit in the front where you can suck up to the driver.”
Matthew was stunned. He looked for support among the other boys in the back, but their faces were hard. He slowly walked to the front of the bus and sat down. What was the world coming to? Fortunately, it was a short ride to the school.
Tension vibrated in the classroom. Matthew could feel it as Mrs. Blackwell was teaching English—or rather, trying to teach English. It reached a peak when she caught Sylvia passing the forbidden flyer to Tom in the back of the room. She immediately confiscated the flyer and sent them both to the principal’s office.
When they were gone she spoke to the class. “Let that be a lesson to all of you. They’ll probably get suspended from school. That’s what happens to people who don’t obey the rules.”
Matthew was torn. On the one hand, he was being treated badly by kids because of the flyer. On the other hand, he could see an injustice in the making. He had to separate the two issues in his head. At lunchtime he went to the principal’s office instead of playing soccer.
He knew Mrs. Roberts quite well. Did that make him a suck up? She had been a history teacher, and he liked to discuss history with her. She smiled when she saw him standing in the doorway, and motioned for him to come in.
“Well, Matthew, I haven’t seen you for a while. I thought you liked to play on the playground at lunch.”
“I do, Mrs. Roberts, but there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Of course. My office is always open.”
“Thank you. It’s about Sylvia and Tom. I understand that they might be suspended from school.”
“A decision hasn’t been made yet, but Mrs. Blackwell did catch them violating school rules.”
“What if the rules are wrong?”
Mrs. Roberts took off her glasses and looked very solemn. “Have you read the contents of the flyer they were passing around?”
“Then you know that it advocates kicking good students like you out of the school.”
“I know that. I don’t agree with it. But do we have the right to censor what other people say just because we don’t agree with them? What would Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson think?” Matthew knew they were two of Mrs. Roberts’ favorite historical figures.
Mrs. Roberts twirled her glasses by one of the ear-pieces, leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. Finally, she spoke. “Many schools and colleges these days have speech codes—they list topics that can’t be discussed.”
“So you’re saying we need a speech code here? Matthew smiled. “My mom and more teachers than I can remember have said, ‘Just because everybody else does something, does that mean you should?’”
“Touché. All right, Matthew. I’ve also heard your mom say that you were born at the age of forty. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do? If I suspend Tom and Sylvia their parents will probably squawk, but, hopefully, peace will return to the campus. If I say it’s all right for this flyer to circulate and the contents to be discussed, we’ll have tumult for the rest of the school year.”
“I’ve read that schools are places of learning intended to be where there can be an open exchange of ideas. This exchange may not necessarily be quiet or orderly. I’ve also read that our founding fathers argued a lot—and very loudly.”
Mrs. Roberts laughed. “Your mom was right. Tell you what. I’ll lift the ban on circulating and discussing the flyer if you’ll do one thing for me.”
“We’re having an assembly of the whole school this afternoon. I’ll give you five minutes to talk to the school. The students respect your opinion. Tell everybody your thoughts about freedom of speech. When they see where you stand, that may help keep the resulting discussion civil.”
For Matthew, who had sung solos as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” at the age of eight before sellout audiences, speaking to the students wasn’t that daunting. He agreed to do it. But he wondered whether this would uncover a nest of snakes.
When Mrs. Roberts introduced Matthew at the assembly, she didn’t say what he was going to talk about. As he looked out at the sea of faces in front of him, he recognized many of them and noticed that they were looking at him expectantly, waiting to hear his words. He wanted to be worthy of that attention.
“People who have something often don’t value it as much as people who don’t have it. For example, take personal freedom. What I mean by personal freedom is the freedom to say and do what you want as long this doesn’t limit the freedom of anyone else. In this country we are guaranteed freedom by the Constitution, and we take it for granted.
“Other countries have limited freedom. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people inside East Germany where they weren’t free to say and do what they wanted. They missed their freedom so much that they were willing to risk their lives to get out of East Germany. My grandfather wrote a poem about the Berlin Wall. I’d like to read it to you.”
Matthew took his personal copy of Freedom’s Light and turned to the page he had bookmarked.
“Over and under and through the Wall they came,
parched with a thirst they couldn't quench.
Tunneling, flying, leaping, crawling, hidden
in car seats and carts, determined to wrench
themselves free from tyranny's stench.
“Oppressed, tortured, imprisoned, shot—
still the thirsty would not could not be denied.
The spring of freedom beckoned, so close, so far;
yards, feet, nay inches away they died—
and friends and loved ones cried.
“Some made it! a baby hidden in a bag in a cart;
desperate men who leapt on a moving train;
a hollow car seat, tunnels, boats,
a makeshift glider, balloon and plane;
putting an end to the thirst and pain.
“And then one day, one wonderful day,
they hammered and shattered and tore down the Wall!
Thirsting, singing, shouting, laughing, hugging,
chunk by chunk they watched it fall—
and the terrible thirst was quenched for all.”
There was complete silence when Matthew finished. He couldn’t tell whether he had gotten his point across or not. He had to say something more. “Freedom of speech is one of our most important freedoms. You should be able to say what you want, even if I don’t agree with you—even if it hurts my feelings. When we don’t allow someone to speak, freedom sneezes. We don’t want freedom to catch pneumonia and die.
“With this in mind, Mrs. Roberts is going to lift the ban on circulating and discussing the flyer we are all familiar with. Just remember that to make the discussion productive, we should talk about the issues and not about the people involved.”
Even if Matthew had wanted to continue, he would have been drowned out by the noise of what sounded like every student in the school talking at once. At least they were showing some reaction. He went back to his seat with a look at Mrs. Roberts. She winked at him.
In Mason’s last class of the day, in order to restore order Miss Knoblock agreed to devote the final fifteen minutes to discussion of the flyer. When the time for discussion came, Mason was the first person to raise his hand. Miss Knoblock called on him.
“I don’t agree with the contents of the flyer.”
There were hisses from the back of the room. Miss Knoblock put her finger to her lips and said, “Let Mason speak. Everybody will get a turn.”
Mason continued. “I don’t agree with it because it takes the wrong approach to solving a real problem. The problem is to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance at a good education. The solution is not to bring the good students down. That will just create a world of losers. We need to raise everybody up and create a world of winners. I’d like to help by agreeing to tutor anybody who needs help in math.”
There was scattered applause. Miss Knoblock nodded. “Thank you, Mason. That was very constructive. Who else has something constructive to say?”
“Good speech, Matthew.” Mason ate an energy bar and gave thumbs up to his brother. “I’m not the only one who thinks so. Several kids told me the same thing. Maybe someday you’ll be president.”
“Don’t wish that on me.” But he was happy about the compliment. “If you want to wish something for me, how about a trip around the world?”
Mom overheard and said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a few years for that. Meanwhile, don’t you have homework?”
“I may not do my homework. We have personal freedom in this country.”
“Your freedom begins after you finish your homework.”
Mason laughed. “You’ve still got a few bugs to work out on this freedom thing.”