Earlier today, I read a story about a teenage girl called Maddi Runkles. Maddi was a high school senior, a straight-A student, president of the student council and a member of the school soccer team. She was also pregnant. And at her school, that was taboo. So taboo in fact, that the school barred her from attending her graduation ceremony, because, heaven forfend that school dignitaries should see a pregnant teenager. Maddi’s friends and loved ones ended up giving her her own graduation ceremony in a local church, and although she didn’t get to wear her cap and gown, she was overwhelmed by the effort that those who loved her had put into the day.
As if I were being pulled back through time, I recalled a very similar incident when I was at school…though it ended rather differently.
I can recall the incident as if it were yesterday. Three school friends – Michelle, Donna and myself – gathered around our tearful friend, Zoe. We were all 16. We had finished our exams, gotten our results (we were all thrilled by them), and were looking forward to the exam ceremony when we would get our exam certificates presented to us by the mayor. (For my dear non-UK friends, I should point out that in the UK, we attend high school from the age of 11 up to the age of 16. We can then choose to either stay on until 18 or go to college, or simply leave and go into work). The only fly in the ointment as far as the school was concerned, was that Zoe was 6 months pregnant. This meant that there was no hiding the fact. All you had to do was look at her. She was pregnant alright.
That morning, Zoe had been called to see both the headmaster, Mr Hill, and deputy headmistress, Mrs Laverock. They were a puritanical pair, and I don’t mind admitting that I had my own run-ins with them from time to time, but that’s a whole other story. When Zoe emerged from the meeting, she stumbled into the school-yard in tears. Mr Hill and Mrs Laverock had both told her that there was no way she would be allowed to attend the exam ceremony. It would “be an abomination for the mayor to see you in that state” they told her. To add insult to injury, they had told her that she could come to the school on the day of the ceremony and pick up her certificate from the headmaster’s office. Their treatment of her just felt so unfair. Zoe was a perfect student.. She had never been in trouble, never put a foot wrong, never been given school detention, nothing. And yet she made one personal error of judgement and she was being treated as a pariah.
I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, but I have always had a deep-rooted sense of standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Perhaps it comes from the fact that my Dad was a union man, or maybe that I was surrounded by strong women who absolutely refused to be walked over. Wherever it came from, it came rushing to the surface that day. So while Michelle and Donna put their arms around Zoe to comfort her, the words “Well if you can’t go, I’m not going” thrust their way from my lips. Zoe, Michelle and Donna looked at me, Zoe blinking away the tears as she said “How will you get your certificate then?”
“I’ll come to the office with you and pick up mine at the same time.” I can remember saying it so matter-of-fact, as if it were the most natural response in the world. I hasten to add that I hadn’t given a moment’s thought as to what my parents would say! There was a moment of silence between us, before Donna and Michelle said “Well if you two aren’t going, we’re not going!”
Almost simultaneously, Michelle, Donna and myself got the same idea. What if, just what if, we could get more students in our year to join us? What if we could get them all to join us? Or even just most of them?
The high school grapevine is, by far, the most alacritous way of passing information. There is no quicker method known to man. Honestly, a lie can half way around the school before the truth has a chance to get its pants on! So, for the rest of the day, the three of us made it our goal to tell as many people as possible that as many people as we could think of weren’t attending the exam ceremony. Little white lies were told, sure. For example, we told several people that their best friends had said they weren’t going before we’d even spoken to them, and then told their best friends the same thing. By the end of the day, more than half of our student year had joined us, and, as we arrived at school the next morning, we were relieved to hear that practically the entire student year was on side. When we assembled in the yard at break time, we were missing just seven students. All that was left to do now was to go and tell the headmaster the good news.
Even now as I write this, I can see his face as he opened his office door and saw practically the entire final student year assembled in the corridor outside. “Mr Hill” I said, as confidently as I could, “we, that is, all of us, would like to put you on notice that if you do not allow Zoe (surname) to attend the exam ceremony, we, that is, all of us, won’t be attending either.”
For a moment, the blood drained from his face, before he finally regained his composure and told us all we were acting very foolishly. He then asked us whether we were all in agreement, and we all nodded. Perhaps emboldened by the seeming power shift, Michelle – who was standing next to me – said “What’s more embarrassing, sir…a pregnant Zoe or an empty school hall?”
I don’t actually remember his response to that, but I do recall that two days later, our student year was called into the school hall to be told that after taking advice from the school governors, Mr Hill and Mrs Laverock had decided that Zoe could attend the exam ceremony. We quietly and respectfully said, “Thank you, sir. Thank you, miss” although I know that I for one was tempted to shout, “Yes! In your face!”
Later that month, we all attended the exam ceremony and received our certificates from the mayor, who, didn’t even bat an eyelid when he saw Zoe.
I guess that was one of my first important life lessons, and one that I have carried with me ever since. You can intimidate one person, but they all stick together, you can’t intimidate everyone.