The Crack and the Light at Highland Park High School

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
~~Leonard Cohen

On Friday, I was honored to participate in the Highland Park Literary Festival. I was first greeted by several parents who had dedicated many long hours organizing the festival. At several points during the day, I thought about how lucky HP students were to have a group of parents and teachers work together to provide an opportunity to be introduced to a variety of arts and artists.

Next, I met a few of the teachers, including Aaron Smith, Creative Writing teacher and Faculty Advisor for HP LitFest. We had an enjoyable conversation about writing and I told him how my Creative Writing teacher in high school had been instrumental in inspiring my desire to be a writer.

I met several other authors, a songwriter and a playwright, and was even fortunate to have a few minutes to talk to one of my favorite authors, and the keynote speaker for HP LitFest, Jamie Ford. We talked about how he balances appearances with his writing, about the Japanese American internment and how his book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet inspired me to keep writing The Red Kimono. Then, he said, “If I purchase a copy of The Red Kimono, would you sign it?”


It was a “James at 15” moment for me–an awkward, thrilling, calm-down-or-you’ll-look-like-an-idiot moment. (Jamie talked about his “James at 15” moments in his presentation on Friday night.) I’m not ashamed to say I was thrilled that one of my favorite authors had asked me for an autograph.

Then, because I had not yet presented my workshops, I asked how his presentations with the students had gone. He had just begun to tell me about some of the challenges he’d experienced the day before, when another woman approached him for an autograph.

I didn’t want to monopolize my time with Jamie, (oh, yes I did, but I think I subliminally knew that listening to this very experienced speaker talk about his challenges would not help the jitters I often experience before a presentation,) so I excused myself.

Fast forward to Saturday night:

A friend of mine messaged me and asked if I’d seen what Jamie had written about his experience. I hadn’t, so I went to look for it.

  • Click HERE to read on his website.
  • To read on Facebook with comments, click HERE.
  • To read the article in the Dallas Morning News, click HERE.

I was saddened, surprised and disappointed to read the details of what had happened at the Freshman/Sophomore assembly. After all, my experience had been a positive one, with only a couple of “challenging” moments.

From first walking into the school, I was pleased to see how polite and mature the students seemed as they entered and greeted the guard with a smile and “Good morning.”

In the first class where I presented my workshop, the students were engaged and attentive as I presented “Creative Characterization: Discovering Your Character’s Secrets.” Any hint of inattention was promptly “redirected” by the teacher in the class, Mrs. Campbell. The students did the exercises, and several shared what they wrote, and I was impressed by the writing quality. A few asked questions, and almost every student thanked me personally when my workshop was over.

In the second class, the students were more distracted. I asked how many were writers and nobody raised their hands. (That’s not a problem, but discussing ways to get characters to “talk” can present a challenge when presenting to non-writers, whether high school or not.) So, I noticed a couple of snickers. Also, not everyone participated in the exercises. At various times, a couple of girls talked while I was talking. Nobody wanted to share what they’d written, although after a bit of cajoling, one young man agreed to read what he wrote. Nobody had questions. As a result we finished several minutes early.

None of what happened in the second class was a big deal to me, as nobody was overtly impolite–simply not interested, which is fine. All in all, it was a very positive experience.

For me.

Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case with Jamie Ford’s treatment during his presentation, and therein lies the “crack” in HP LitFest.

There is a crack in everything…

I was not at the assembly where the problems occurred, but I did have the opportunity to interact with many students, staff and volunteers at HP LitFest.

After reading Jamie’s article, as well as the Dallas Morning News article and most of the comments on Facebook, I believe the chanting and clapping was begun by a relatively small group of students. But there were no consequences for this behavior, so apparently, peer pressure drew in other students.

Jamie received many emails from students, apologizing for the behavior of some at Highland Park High School. Several parents commented on Facebook that their children came home and expressed embarrassment for what happened. Several students made public statements of apology on Facebook.

But, why didn’t an anyone stand up and say something? Students? Staff? And most of all, the principal, who was apparently present?

My attempt to answer lies in my own reason for initially wanting to “stay out of it.” At first, I hesitated to publicly comment at all. For one, I tend to avoid conflict. Second, I have family members (by marriage) who are Highland Park alumni. Third–and perhaps where I’m most vulnerable–one of my desires as a writer is to have more opportunities to speak about writing or the history of the Japanese American internment to schools. So, I hesitated to “bite” a hand that could feed that desire.

But, after reading many comments, I decided if I kept my mouth shut, I’d be as complicit in what happened as the students, the teachers and the principal. After all, they each had reasons why they didn’t speak up.

So, apologies for the long lead-up and why I finally thought it important to speak up.

Freshman and sophomore years are tough. In every presentation I’ve made to a variety of schools, this seems to be the most challenging age. However, that’s no excuse to bully–not a guest in your own school–not anybody.

I believe part of the problem with kids behaving like that–kids believing they can behave like that–has to do with the fact they believe they won’t suffer consequences, which makes me wonder about the culture of discipline/consequences at Highland Park High School. Why didn’t the principal say something?

At first, I regretted Jamie wrote the article. But, not writing it would be rather like ignoring the truth in a dysfunctional family. Ignoring the truth doesn’t make the problem non-existent and it certainly doesn’t make it go away. This ugly thing happened, and one of the consequences should be that the world knows about it.

In my opinion, what happened on Thursday is a microcosm of what has gone on and what continues to go on in the larger world–bullying and complacency.

Bullying, unfortunately, happens all around us. It’s rampant on social media. The news media in the last week has been flooded with images of adults yelling and screaming at their representatives at town hall meetings. The President of the United States is a bully. I can certainly see where kids might think, “If it’s okay for adults to act this way, why not us?”

And I’m as guilty as anyone about “wanting to stay out of it.” But complacency allowed the very history about which Jamie Ford and I have written–the Japanese American internment–as well as many dark events in history. And, there’s certainly plenty going on today about which we should speak up.

Both happened at Jamie’s assembly–bullying and complacency.

But, there will always be bullies.

Perhaps attention would be better directed toward finding ways to teach the larger population of students–those who were embarrassed and who took the time to write Jamie Ford to apologize–how to stand up against bullying, discrimination, or anything they know in their hearts and minds is wrong.

Those “messages” coming from their hearts and minds might be strengthened by finding ways to teach and develop empathy, something I believe more and more, has been lost through technology. So much of our communication occurs online, where it’s easy not to think about the person behind the “likes,” angry-faced emoticons and tweets.

I doubt the “bullies” at Highland Park gave a thought to how it would feel to be on that stage in front of, in Jamie’s words, “a thousand students, trolling me.”

Jamie’s article certainly revealed a crack. But the light shining through illuminates an opportunity to help students with one of the greatest challenges of being an adult–finding the courage to speak up.

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2 Responses to The Crack and the Light at Highland Park High School

  1. Melissamcollins says:

    I think he overblew the problem. Period. The few, not a thousand, kids were wrong!!!9

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with what you say about not stereotyping the entire assembly, and certainly not the whole school or community. I wasn’t there, so I can’t debate the numbers of those who participated. However, this was his perception, and the point of my post is that nobody, including the principal, stood against those who disrupted the assembly. I believe we need to teach our kids empathy and give them the tools they need to stand up when they know something is not right–especially today.

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