Banned in Sherwood, sold out in Portland

The good news is, I couldn’t get in to Brunish  Hall Sunday afternoon to see “Higher Ground” — it was sold out. Maybe you read about it here, on the front page of Monday’s Oregonian, in another of reporter Maya Blackmun’s continuing series on the off-again, on-again production of a play about middle-school bullying that Sherwood Middle School Principal Anna Pittioni deemed too hot for her tots to handle.

It would have been nice to see this sort-of happy ending, with all the cheers for the hard work of the student performers and tekkies and their drama teacher, Jennie Brown, who wrote the script that Principal Pittioni considered too mature for some of the school’s students to deal with. (The kids in the show argued that the script actually watered down everyday reality in the halls of the Sherwood school, a typical sort of place in a typical sort of town, and, you could further argue, a reality that the typical young teen enrolled in the school is already all too familiar with.) But if I’d gotten in, someone else would have been left out (lots of us were turned away at the door), and isn’t that what every producer wants: a sold-out show?

So everybody won, and everything turned out great, right?

Well, no — and it’s important to remember that.

It’s important to remember that the audience the young performers originally wanted to see the play — their fellow students — was mostly blocked from access to it. Unless their parents drove them into Portland for Sunday’s performance (and only parents who were already firmly on the First Amendment bandwagon are likely to have done that) the kids who actually attend the school got the three-monkey treatment: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. And they didn’t get a chance to decide for themselves exactly what “evil” was. Principal Pittioni and the Sherwood school board performed that pesky task for them.

It’s important to remember that what could have been a positive learning experience for the Sherwood community instead became in large part a negative one. Kids learned that when they’re faced with an unreasonable ban, the best thing to do is an end run: They learned to be a little more cynical about the adult world. Administrators learned that, if they can take the heat for a little while, they have the power to effectively keep free speech and an open exploration of ideas out of their schools (which are actually our schools, but let that go). Parents learned that if three or four of them put up enough of a fuss they can put a stop to common sense and common discourse. And people who are deemed in any way “different” learned that if they disagree even mildly with the fairy-tale version of small-town life, they will be kicked even farther out on the margins. I speak, by the way, as an urbanite who grew up in a small town, spends a fair amount of time in small towns and loves small towns, but isn’t Pollyannish about them.

It’s important to recognize that, after all, a lot of good did come out of this unnecessary flap: The whole town of Sherwood, or at least those parts of it that were paying attention, has begun to take a hard look at what it really is. And the kids in the show had their hard work and good intentions validated on a big stage.

But it’s also important to understand that this is a road we’ve been down many times before, and are likely to travel many times again. The free flow of ideas does not happen easily. If it is a core value of the American culture, it is also a value that is continually feared and resisted. There are many skirmishes in the battle over censorship, which is really a battle over control of opinions and beliefs, and its outcome can never be taken for granted.

These little attempts at clamping down on the right to free expression come at the same time, ironically, that American officialdom has never been nosier. Under the stress of 9/11, Americans have been only too happy to be spied on, added to lists, listened in on, searched without warrant, investigated on whim, prodded and generally pried into, all in the name of safety. Just when we need to be more skeptical, more jealous of our privacy, more insistent on a free and accurate flow of information, more demanding of transparency and honesty on the part of our leaders, we seem to have capitulated to the self-appointed managers of free thought. There’s something for the kids in Sherwood to chew on.

Not to get all biblical about this thing, but it strikes me that one passage is pertinent: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

Except, how can you know the truth if people with power keep trying to hide it from you?

— Bob Hicks