by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR
Talk about being politically correct. A funny thing happened a year ago when I was a sophomore in high school. In my English class, we read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and were assigned to write an essay about any aspect of the book that came to mind. This book which takes place during the depression is about a poor family in the south who moves to California to find a better life. One of the family members has just gotten out of prison and his sister is pregnant. Although we weren't poor and nobody in my family was in prison or pregnant when we moved to Sheridan, Wyoming the year before, our situation was similar.
Before we moved here, we were living happily, I thought, in Tucson, Arizona where my parents taught English at the university. My folks then decided they couldn't take the heat of Arizona and they didn't like teaching at a big university anymore. They quit their jobs and sold the house and we loaded all our earthly possessions into two cars and a U-Haul and hit the road in search of a cooler climate and a better life. Dad drove the U-Haul and Mom drove one of our cars and my older brother Karl drove the other car. Karl and I didn't want to leave our schools and our friends. And since Karl played the guitar in a rock band, he didn't want to leave that either. But my parents prevailed and so off we went.
Mom and Dad thought it might be nice to settle in California by the ocean, an idea Karl also liked since it would possibly put us closer to L.A. where there was sure to be a rock band he could join. But for some reason, Mom and Dad didn't like any of the towns we drove through in California, including L.A., which they said was just like Tucson. So we headed north.
For several days, we drove through towns in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and southern Wyoming but Mom and Dad still weren't happy. Then, we came to Sheridan and there was just something about this town Mom and Dad liked. Karl and I were not thrilled because this town had no shopping mauls and only one movie theater. But Dad and Mom decided that this would be our new home.
We bought a three-story red brick house, which Karl and I thought was awesome since our home in Arizona had only one floor and no basement. The entire third floor of the house became Karl's domain and miracle of miracles, he met a boy his age who played the drums and so the two of them formed their own little rock band. Dad and Mom both found jobs teaching English at Sheridan College. We soon started school and made new friends and about a year later, here I was, writing an essay on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Actually, the essay was Mom's idea. So with her guidance, I wrote a paper describing the similarities and differences between the family in the book and our family. To tell the truth, Mom rewrote it because she didn't like the way I wrote it. It was a perfect paper, except for one little flaw.
"You can't use the word pregnant," said Mr. Hilton in his smug, British accent as he handed my paper back to me.
I sat at my desk and stared at him. "What's wrong with the word pregnant?" I asked.
"It's just not an appropriate word to use," replied Mr. Hilton. "You can say that she was in the family way or that she was with child. But you just can't say that she was pregnant. You'll have to redo the paper."
"Redo the whole paper!" I exclaimed. "Just because I used the word pregnant!"
The room fell silent and heads turned to look at us. "Will you please keep your voice down?" said Mr. Hilton. "You did this on a computer, right?"
"Yes," I answered.
"And you saved it, didn't you?" he asked.
"Yes," I said with a sigh.
"Then, all you have to do is open the document, delete the word pregnant, put in something else, and print another copy," said Mr. Hilton.
"But that's ridiculous," I found myself saying, to my surprise. "There's nothing wrong with the word pregnant. We use it at our house all the time." This was followed by a few snickers. "Not that anyone in my family is pregnant," I said, realizing my mistake and trying to keep my dignity. "What I'm trying to say is that nobody in my family was pregnant while we were traveling across the country, looking for a better life."
This caused even more laughter and I could feel my face growing red. I wished my best friend Gwen Curtis were there to stick up for me but she was in a different class at that time. So I was forced to fend for myself.
With a sigh, Mr. Hilton turned and walked back to his desk. A few minutes later, he returned with a handwritten note. "Please give this to your mother," he ordered. "And you have until tomorrow to make that change in your paper. If you don't, you'll get an F."
As Mr. Hilton walked back to his desk, I glanced at the note. It said what he just told me and also that I was arrogant and disrespectful to him. I didn't know what to think. And it occurred to me that technically, it wasn't even my paper. I was tempted to march up to his desk and tell him that my mom, a college English professor, wrote the paper for me. But I figured I would get into even more trouble for not writing my own paper. The best thing to do would be just to do what Mr. Hilton said and leave it at that.
The rest of that afternoon was probably the most humiliating time for me in my high school experience. Word of what I said to Mr. Hilton spread like wildfire. Whenever I walked into a classroom or even into the girls' bathroom, other kids turned and looked at me and snickered. Boys who passed me in the hall asked, "Stephanie, I hear you're pregnant. Congratulations. Who's the father?"
When the bell rang to signal the end of the last class, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. For once, I was the first one on the school bus going home. As I walked in the front door, Mom was hanging up the phone in the front hall and she looked a little upset. "Honey, I just got a call from Mr. Hilton," she said. "He said he sent a note home with you. Could I see it, please?"
My heart sank. I didn't intend to show her or Dad the note. I was just going to sneak to the computer while Mom was fixing dinner and make that change and if she happened to notice what I was doing, I would just tell her that Mr. Hilton said I needed to revise the paper.
"Mom," I started to say but before I could continue, I burst into tears.
"Oh sweetie," cried Mom, taking me into her arms. It felt good to cry on her shoulder. It was so reassuring to smell the familiar scent of her perfume.
"I made a big fool out of myself in English class today," I sobbed. "I don't know if I can ever go back there again."
"Now honey, it can't be as bad as all that," said Mom. "Why don't you tell me what happened and then show me the note?"
I told her everything, including the fact that I said nobody in my family was pregnant and how other kids treated me after the incident. I got the note out of my back pack and handed it to her. After glancing at it, her face turned red and she tossed it into a nearby waste basket exclaiming, "That arrogant fool! There's absolutely nothing wrong with the word pregnant and I intend to write him a letter and tell him so. And you'll give him that letter tomorrow with your paper the way it is and if Mr. Hilton doesn't like it, well that's just too bad."
"But Mom, he'll give me an F if I don't change the paper," I reminded her.
"If he does, then I'll go to the principal and if that doesn't work, I'll go to the school board," said Mom. "What Mr. Hilton is doing is just not right, Stephanie, and that's all there is to it."
I thought of my friend Gwen Curtis's dad who was on the school board. "Mom," I whined. "I'm already the laughing stock of the whole school. This is just going to make it worse."
Mom sighed, "Stephanie, we have to stand up for what we believe in. Besides, we may not even have to go to the school board. I'll bet when Mr. Hilton reads my letter, he'll see my point and give you a passing grade. Also honey, there are girls your age who actually get pregnant, as opposed to just writing about it. And that can be a lot worse than what happened to you today." Mom was right, of course. And when I thought about it, I realized that at least, I hadn't given birth to a dead baby like the woman in The Grapes of Wrath.
Gwen called right before dinner and when I told her Mom might take my case all the way to the school board, she said, "I don't think it'll get that far. Miss Rutledge doesn't like Mr. Hilton. So I'm sure she'll side with you and your mom on this."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Last year, Mr. Hilton and Miss Rutledge had an affair that ended bitterly," Gwen answered.
"Get out of here!" I exclaimed, laughing.
"I'm serious," said Gwen. "I overheard Dad telling Mom about it last year. Dad didn't think it was appropriate for a principal and a teacher to be romantically involved. So he went to Miss Rutledge and asked her to break off the relationship. Miss Rutledge refused, saying she loved Mr. Hilton and she'd go back to teaching if that would make their relationship more acceptable. She said she hated being a principal anyway. So Dad went to Mr. Hilton and he's the one who broke it off. And Miss Rutledge was really mad at him."
"How do you know this?" I asked.
"Dad told Mom they were both at a school board meeting soon after this happened and Miss Rutledge wouldn't even speak to him," answered Gwen.
"So," I said, beginning to see the light. "Miss Rutledge could fire Mr. Hilton if he gives me an F on my paper."
"Well, not exactly," said Gwen. "You can't fire a teacher for something like that. It has to be more serious. But she could make his life so miserable he'd quit."
"But she hasn't done anything to make his life miserable so far, has she?" I asked.
"No, not that I know of," Gwen answered. "But she just hasn't found a way to do it, yet. Your situation could be it."
"But what if it isn't? What if my mom takes this thing to your dad and the other school board members?" I asked.
"Trust me," said Gwen. "It won't get past Miss Rutledge. She'll find a way to deal with this that will satisfy your mother. You wait and see."
Gwen and I were close friends. If she said it would be all right, she was probably right. It was with a sigh of relief that I went downstairs for dinner.
During the meal, Mom told Dad what happened and I told him about how the other kids treated me afterwards and how embarrassed I was. Karl, the loving older brother that he was, snickered and said, "So in nine months, some brat's gonna be calling me Uncle Karl."
"Shut up, Karl!" I snapped and I hung my head.
"Karl, I think Stephanie has had enough humiliation for one day," my mother reminded him.
"I'm sorry," said Karl with a shrug.
When Mom told Dad she was planning to write a letter to Mr. Hilton, he said, "Well, I think that's a good idea, honey. What he's doing, in a way, is censorship."
"What's that?" I asked.
"In some countries, the government won't send people's letters if they don't like what those people have written," explained Dad. "Or, they'll cut out parts of a letter they don't like before they send it."
This gave me something to ponder. Although I wasn't writing a letter, was Mr. Hilton censoring my English paper by telling me I could not write the word pregnant? If that was the case, maybe Mom and Dad were right after all. Government was not one of my best subjects in school but I knew that Americans have the right to freedom of expression and I realized that my right was being violated. I decided that I didn't care who laughed at me or made jokes about me being pregnant. I was going to fight, along with Mom and Dad, for my right to free speech as an American, even though I didn't write the paper.
After dinner,Mom wrote the letter. It said that by giving me an F on the paper just because I used a word he thought was inappropriate, Mr. Hilton was going against a value she and Dad were trying to teach us, the American value of being able to write what we want without persecution. As a college English teacher, Mom said she did not judge a paper on whether inappropriate words were used but she only determined whether the point was well made and of course, she paid particular attention to grammar and spelling. Mom said she read my paper and she believed I made some very good points and there were no grammatical or spelling mistakes. In conclusion, she said she thought my paper deserved a passing grade.
The next day at school, some kids still looked at me and snickered but I ignored them because I knew now that I was right. When I walked into my English class that afternoon, I placed Mom's note and my untouched paper on the desk in front of Mr. Hilton.
"What's this?" he asked, glancing at the note.
"A note from my mom, saying why I won't change my paper," I answered, standing before him with my head held high.
He looked at the letter and said, "Stop by after school, Stephanie, and I'll have another note for your mother. And you now have until tomorrow to make that change or you'll get an F and that's all there is to it."
During the bus ride home, I read his letter. It said that teaching college students is different from teaching high school students and that there were certain words that young people in my age group should not use and pregnant was one of them. It also said that Mom should mind her own business, since Mr. Hilton never told her how to teach her classes. By the time I got home, I was fuming and Mom was waiting. Without a word, I handed her Mr. Hilton's letter and went upstairs to do my homework, sure that Mom would know what to do next and not caring what happened.
After dinner, Mom wrote two letters, one to Mr. Hilton and one to Miss Rutledge. The one to Mr. Hilton said that Mom and Dad still did not agree with his decision to give me an F if I did not make the change he wanted and that they were appealing to Miss Rutledge. The one to Miss Rutledge told the whole story and said that Mom and Dad hoped she would do the right thing. Both Mom and Dad signed the letters and when I told them what Gwen said about Mr. Hilton and Miss Rutledge, Dad said that was nobody's business but theirs and that we shouldn't even be talking about it.
The next morning when I got to school, I went straight to the main office. The school secretary, Miss Evans, smiled when I entered. When I told her I needed to give Miss Rutledge a letter from my parents, she pointed to a nearby doorway and said, "Go right on in. She's free." When I hesitated, she laughed and said, "She won't bite you. She loves to talk to students."
Still feeling a little unsure of myself, I went to the open doorway and peered into the office. Miss Rutledge was sitting at her desk and when she saw me, she rose and said with a smile, "Come in."
Feeling a little more at ease, I walked into the room and approached the desk. Miss Rutledge extended her hand and I did the same and we shook hands. "I don't think we've met," she said. "What's your name?"
"I'm Stephanie Andrews," I said. "I'm a sophomore this year."
"Hello, Stephanie," said Miss Rutledge with another smile. "What can I do for you today?"
This caught me by surprise. Never before did a principal ask what she could do for me. With confidence, I said, "I have a letter for you from my parents. It's about this paper I wrote for my English class about John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Mr. Hilton doesn't like me using the word pregnant and he says if I don't change it, he'll give me an F on the paper and my parents and I disagree with that."
I placed the note on the desk and she picked it up and as she read it, I thought I detected a ghost of a smile on her face. "I see," she said, putting the note down on the desk. Her face became serious again. "Do you have a copy of this paper with you, Stephanie? I'd like to read it."
This was another surprise. No principal ever took an interest in my schoolwork before. "Sure," I said with a smile as I retrieved it from my back pack.
"Do you have a free period today before your English class?" she asked.
"Yeah, I have third period free," I answered.
"Good," said Miss Rutledge. "Instead of going to study hall, come here. We'll talk about your paper then."
"Thanks," I said and as I headed for my first class of the day, I couldn't help thinking what a neat principal Miss Rutledge was. She was going to take time out of her busy schedule to read my paper and then talk to me about it. But technically, it was Mom's paper but what did that matter now?
During the next two hours, I could hardly concentrate. I kept wondering what Miss Rutledge would say about the paper. Would she agree with me and my folks that it was okay for me to say that the character in the book was pregnant or would she take Mr. Hilton's side? And if she did, then what? When the bell finally rang at the end of second period, I hurried through the crowded halls. I slowed down when I reached the main office. It probably wouldn't do to look too hasty. Miss Evans smiled and said, "Go right on in, Stephanie. She's waiting for you."
When I stuck my head in the door, Miss Rutledge rose from her desk and smiled at me. "Come on in, Stephanie," she said. "And please close the door."
I did what she asked and took a chair opposite her desk and braced myself for what would come next. Still smiling, Miss Rutledge said, "Stephanie, I think you have written an excellent paper. You have made some very good points and I see nothing wrong with your use of the word pregnant."
"Really," I said in astonishment.
"Yes," answered Miss Rutledge. "In fact, although it's been years since I've read The Grapes of Wrath, it seems to me that John Steinbeck also used the word pregnant."
"But wasn't he older than me when he wrote that book?" I asked.
"Yes," answered Miss Rutledge. "But I don't quite understand what Mr. Hilton has against you using that word. I'll talk to him and I'll see to it that you get a passing grade. You have worked very hard on this paper and you deserve it."
As I left Miss Rutledge's office, her last words struck me as funny. She said I worked hard on that paper. Actually, Mom was the one to write it, although I took a stab at it first. But I was relieved that this ordeal would soon be over.
That afternoon, I walked into Mr. Hilton's English class as usual. While the others went to their seats, I stopped by Mr. Hilton's desk and placed my untouched paper on it along with the letter from my parents.
"What's this?" Mr. Hilton asked with a note of irritation in his voice.
"My parents and I still think I deserve a passing grade for that paper," I answered. "And I've talked to Miss Rutledge about it and she agrees."
"Well, we'll just see about that," said Mr. Hilton in an icy tone of voice.
I was ecstatic as I walked to my desk and sat down. Mr. Hilton closed the classroom door and walked to the front of his desk. As soon as the room fell silent and Mr. Hilton opened his mouth to speak, the classroom door opened and in walked Miss Rutledge with a broad grin on her face. Mr. Hilton glared at her but Miss Rutledge only smiled at him and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Hilton. This will only take a moment." Miss Rutledge walked to the front of the desk and stood next to him. "Now then," she said in her most authoritative voice. "It has come to my attention that Mr. Hilton doesn't like you all using the word pregnant in your writing. Is that right?"
"Yeah," some of us muttered and again, heads turned in my direction but I didn't care.
"Well, we're going to see if we can't change his mind," the principal announced. "Are you guys willing to help me out, here?"
"Sure," a few people said. Others just stared at Miss Rutledge.
"Okay," she said. "Here's what we're going to do. On the count of three, we're all going to say the word pregnant together. Ready, one, two, three."
"Pregnant," we all said, with uncertainty in our voices and there were a few titters.
"Come on now," said Miss Rutledge, laughing. "Don't be afraid of that word. It's not going to bite you. Again, ready, one, two, three."
"Pregnant," we said again, this time with more assurance.
"That's better," said Miss Rutledge. "But I don't think we've convinced him yet. Let's try it one more time and this time, let's see how loud we can say it. All right. Ready, one, two, three."
"Pregnant!" we all yelled at the top of our voices.
Mr. Hilton glowered at Miss Rutledge and then at us and said, "Fine. Use any damn word you want. I don't care because I quit!" He turned on his heel and walked out the door, slamming it behind him.
While we looked on in silence, Miss Rutledge picked up my paper and after scribbling something on it, she walked to my desk and handed it to me. She still had that broad grin on her face. I looked at the paper. At the top, she wrote A+. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. Here I was, getting an A+ for a paper my mother wrote.
Miss Rutledge took over Mr. Hilton's classes and the vice principal took over the running of the school. Later, we heard that Mr. Hilton got a job driving a truck. The following summer, Miss Rutledge and Mr. Hilton were married and by the start of the next school year, Mrs. Hilton was, well, in the family way.