Right of passage

Paul Jacob

5/15/2011 12:00:10 AM - Paul Jacob

It’s that time, again: Young people in tuxedos and fancy dresses (and stretch limos), celebrating their near-completion of a dozen years of compulsory schooling with one big dance as they prepare to enter the larger world.

Thirty-three years ago, my wife went with me to our high school senior prom on our first official date. That day marks the jumping off point for a long and fruitful journey that has included seeing our own off to the prom.

Though today I’m oh-so-much more sophisticated, I still remember the amazing courage required to actually do the “asking out” part. A most essential step. Everyone who has ever asked anyone out knows.

Just not quite as well as James Tate now knows.

Tate is the Shelton High School senior first suspended from his Connecticut school on May 6 and then banned from attending his senior prom, only to be miraculously freed yesterday from the school’s zero-tolerance prom-death-penalty, because of massive worldwide media attention (all negative on the school’s gulag-like stance) and a couple hundred thousand active supporters on the “Let James Tate Go to the Prom” Facebook page.

What led to young Tate’s banishment and then to an Arab-style Facebook revolution in the Constitution State?

It began with the unmistakable fact that Mr. Tate is a normal teenage male Homo sapiens in the alternative universe known as an American public high school. James wanted to ask a girl to the prom in a way that would “make her feel special,” so he, with the help of two friends, taped 12-inch tall letters on the brick front wall of the school that read, “Sonali Rodrigues, Will you go to prom with me? HMU [hit me up] Tate.”

The school’s response might have been calm by today’s standards — no psychologist, no SWAT team. But, of course, the school principal claimed putting the message up had been a “safety risk,” even though James actually wore a helmet while standing on the ladder pressing the letters to the school’s brick exterior . . . with two friends spotting him. It was further alleged that James and his two also indicted co-conspirators trespassed on school property by being outside the building putting up the message between one and three in the morning. All three students were suspended and, because their suspensions were issued after April 1, they were also banned from attending the prom.

By the way, Sonali’s response to James’ prom invitation was, “Yes.” As for the school’s heavy handedness, she adroitly commented, “This is really upsetting. It’s our senior year and we are supposed to have happy memories, not something like this.”

To his credit, James expressed regret for putting his friends in a bad situation. He told one reporter, “I feel like a jerk for getting them in trouble, and leaving my date dateless.” He also offered to make up for his transgressions by doing “community service — like cleaning up the litter outside the school.”

The school would have none of it. While various students displayed a keen sense of justice and proportion — with statements like “[The sign] could be taken off so it’s not like it was permanent damage and he didn't deface any property” and “She should have just let him off with a warning”—the administration put the school on “complete lockdown” to block any budding student revolution against the educational/correctional institution holding them. On Friday, Headmaster Beth Smith, flocked by police, informed the throngs of assembled media camped outside the school that a planned sit-in had been averted with “no disruption.”

But there was, indeed, a disruption. Thank goodness, Shelton High School’s ridiculous clampdown on James Tate and his friends sent an unmistakably troubling message: that enthusiasm and creativity are punishable; that education isn’t supposed to be fun; that bureaucratic rules come far ahead of common sense and decency; that school is a cold institution, rather than a place that nurtures living, growing persons; and that rather than “sucking the marrow out of life,” kids need to learn to just keep their heads down and move along in line . . . when told to move.

People all over America, all over the world, were appalled and tried their best to help. A Facebook page dedicated to Tate’s cause grew quickly to hundreds of thousands, emails were sent and phone calls made to school officials in Shelton, Connecticut. And a Shelton High School in Washington State reported their phone and email inboxes filled with comments berating them for the stupid behavior of their namesake in Connecticut.

Yesterday, Shelton officials finally — and unconditionally — surrendered. Announcing the abandonment of the school’s hard-line position, and that Tate and his two friends could indeed go to the prom, Superintendent Freeman Burr declared, sheepishly, “James Tate has set for us a new standard for romanticism.” Headmaster Beth Smith, who days earlier had strongly defended her draconian commitment to the no-prom punishment, admitted, “I never thought this would lead to international notoriety.”

But as one poster on the Facebook page correctly assessed, “She didn’t reverse her decision because it was the right thing to do, she caved to the pressure of us, all of us.”

James and Sonali get to go to prom, thanks to people power. But what does this say about placing more money and authority in the public schools? Common sense shouldn’t require a worldwide media storm in order to prevail.