Thursday, July 06, 2006

Insulted His Classmates or Told the Teachers How They Really Feel?

This is a long one, so I kept the editorial comments to a minimum. I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts!

Principal interrupts valedictorian's criticism of Mainland

By REGINA SCHAFFER Staff Writer, (609) 272-7211
Published: Thursday, June 22, 2006
Updated: Thursday, June 22, 2006

Kareem Elnahal learned a lesson Tuesday night - even in graduation, the school still rules.

The class valedictorian surprised administrators and his fellow 2006 graduates at Mainland Regional High School when he opted to give an unapproved speech criticizing the school. Mainland, Elnahal said, does not encourage intellectual thought and the exchange of ideas. The senior, in a detailed speech that referenced philosphers and ethics principles, referred to his education as "entirely hollow." The speech was interrupted by the principal, and Elnahal cut his remarks short and left the ceremony. Mainland principal Robert Blake said the speech insulted Elnahal's classmates. "That was so hypocritical of him to make that statement," Blake said. "It was an insult to everyone here at this school ... he made inflammatory comments about the school in general."

Reached at his home Wednesday, Elnahal said he regrets the way the situation unfolded. He was embarassed and apologetic. "I put the principal in a very uncomfortable position - he's a very nice guy, actually - I feel bad," Elnahal said. "I feel bad that he had to deal with this."

"I just wanted to finish up, I felt pretty guilty," he said. "I felt embarassed that the ceremony had to happen this way. It's supposed to be a day of celebration."

At the same time, Elnahal said he is glad he had the opportunity to make his point. "I went to two parties last night, and I'm their hero now," he said.

"I felt like this was the right thing to do," Elnahal said. "I couldn't show the speech (to officials) beforehand because they would have rejected it. I could tell by the reaction from students that they felt the same way. I had to express it or I felt that nothing would change."

In Elnahal's original approved speech, he was to touch on the high and low points of school and the experiences that moved the class to maturity. But once he took the podium, Elnahal changed gears and began to speak about the shortcomings of the American education system - specifically, at Mainland, a school that prides itself as being one of the premier area high schools.

"In my reflection ... and I have reflected on this a great deal, I found that many of life's important questions are ignored here," Elnahal said, according to a copy of the alternate speech he provided to The Press. He went on to say, "I speak today not to rant, complain or cause trouble ... rather, I was moved by the countless hours wasted in those halls."

Blake said he and other administrators realized after a few moments that Elnahal's speech was different than what was approved. Blake said he approached Elnahal, let him know he was disappointed with what he was saying, and asked him to wrap up his speech. Elnahal described the incident the same way. After he finished the speech, Elnahal walked off the stage and left the school grounds by his own choice. "I thought it would be better for the ceremony to go on without me," he said.

Blake noted that the very education system Elnahal criticized helped him get into Princeton University. "He conveyed that he felt his education was worthless," Blake said. "We have an outstanding education system here."

Blake said the audience had a mixed reaction to Elnahal's comments. Some yelled comments regarding freedom of speech after the speech was interrupted. Blake said he heard some students cheering and applauding Elnahal's comments.

"I truly don't believe they understood what he was saying," Blake said [emphasis mine--because it proves Elnahal's point. The administration has no idea what teens are actually capable of]. "My hope was they did not hear or understand what he was saying. Whether it was intentional or not, he was belittling the diplomas of every one of those kids."

Blake said that as with every valedictorian's speech, there is a process of review to make sure the speech is appropriate. Elnahal's original speech was approved. "This is a school (sanctioned) program," Blake said. "We give them latitude. However, to say inflammatory things - no, I won't allow that. We have several thousand people in the stands."

"He has a right to his comments, but he shouldn't have been using that pulpit to put forth his limited viewpoint," Blake said. "Hopefully people kept it in context."

David Hudson, a research attorney at First Amendment Center, said it is difficult to say in a situation like this who is right and who is wrong. "The question becomes whether (the student's) speech is student initiated or school sponsored," Hudson said. "It's a hazy issue." Hudson noted that students do not have full First Amendment protection, and do not have the right to say whatever they want at a school event.

But at the same time, disliking a student's speech is not a reason to stop it, Hudson said. If there was substantial concern that the student's words could cause a problem, then someone has a right to step in, Hudson said. Blake said that Elnahal's diploma still is at Mainland. He has not yet contacted the school about obtaining it. "I guess I have to go pick it up," Elnahal said.

The Press of Atlantic City chose to run the young man's speech following the above article:


Four years ago, we gathered here for an education. Today marks a milestone in that pursuit, a culmination of four years of learning, growth and shared memories. At such times, it is appropriate to reflect on years past, to examine what we have done and what we have learned. Today I am charged with that difficult task, and I would like to thank the school for the opportunity to stand before my peers and reflect on our time together.

Education can be defined a number of different ways. For me, it is the product of human curiosity. Intellectual thought, as far as I can tell, is nothing but the asking and answering of questions. In my reflection, however, and I have reflected on this a great deal, I found that many of life's most important questions are ignored here. What is the right way to live? What is the ideal society? What principles should guide my behavior? What is success, what is failure? Is there a creator, and if so, should we look to it for guidance?

These are often dismissed as questions of religion, but religion is not something opposed to rationality, it simply seeks to answer such questions through faith. The separation of church and state is, of course, important, but it should never be a reason for intellectual submission or suppression of any kind. Ethics - it is what defines us - as individuals, as a society - and yet it is never discussed, never explained, never justified. Rousseau, Descartes, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Aquinas, nearly every major writer I've encountered devotes time to the subject.

And it's not as if these questions are without practical concern, that they are less immediately relevant than science for instance. Our laws, our institutions and all our actions are a reflection of our ethics. Our own society owes itself to the writers of the enlightenment, but we never probe their work - we fail to espouse the movement's central principle, doubt -doubt everything. We study what is, never why, never what should be. For that reason, the education we have received here is not only incomplete, it is entirely hollow.

What's more, this same lack of focus can be found in many of the subjects we do study. We approach history as though it were a story, endlessly cataloging every major character or event. But the details of that story are insignificant - what is significant is the progression of ideas. A study of history should get some sense of how the society he sees around him developed from those built thousands of years ago, what ideas changed and what changed them. When humanist scholars looked into ancient Rome during the Renaissance, they searched for moral examples, for ideas. They didn't mull on every single daily event. They were inspired, and they transformed society. History is not an end in itself; it should act as a tool for greater thought.

But it's not only history. I've taken a literature class nearly every year of my life, but never has a question so basic as "What is good writing?" come up. Literary technique, what should be the focus of the class, is never discussed. How does an author develop plot? How can an author control mood or tone in his writing? What is the advantage of one author's methods over another's? Such matters are never discussed. We read for the sake of reading, to talk about our interpretations in class as though we were in a book club. But no attention is paid to why we read the books we do, what makes them so special. And this pattern, grade for the sake of a grade, work for the sake of work, can be found everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, the spirit of intellectual thought is lost. I speak today not to rant, complain or cause trouble, and certainly not to draw attention to myself. I have accomplished nothing and I am nothing. I know that. Rather, I was moved by the countless hours wasted in those halls. Today, you should focus on your child or loved one. This is meant to be a day of celebration, and if I've taken away from that, I'm sorry. But I know how highly this community values learning, and I urge you all to re-evaluate what it means to be educated. I care deeply about everyone here, and it is only our fulfillment I desire. I will leave now so that the ceremony can go on. Again, my deepest apologies, God help me.

The following article is from today's Press of Atlantic City's (New Jersey) Editorial Section:

He proved his point

Published: Friday, June 23, 2006
Updated: Friday, June 23, 2006

Imagine the nerve ... a high-school valedictorian, on his way to Princeton next year, daring to speak about a topic he obviously has given much thought to - the American education system.

It beats the more typical "We are all astronauts on the spaceship to tomorrow" speech, if you ask us.

In fact, the unapproved speech that Mainland Regional High School valedictorian Kareem Elnahal tried to deliver before he was hustled off the stage by Principal Robert Blake was rather thoughtful and quite interesting.

Yes, schools have a right and a responsibility to screen graduation speeches. But Elnahal's speech wasn't a puerile rant filled with expletives- it was an on-the-money critique of the public education system. In fact, both Mark Twain ("I have never let my schooling interfere with my education") and, slightly more crudely, Paul Simon ("When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all") have offered similar critiques.

Mainland officials simply proved Elnahal's point by not letting him give
this speech. Listen to what he said.

And the principal's reaction? He said Elnahal's speech was "hypocritical" and "an insult." Speaking of the other students in the audience, Blake said, "My hope was they did not hear or understand what he was saying. ... He was belittling the diplomas of every one of those kids."

Nonsense. Elnahal was making those kids, and everyone else, think.

School officials should be asking themselves why they wouldn't have approved this speech in the first place. Elnahal's fellow graduates and Mainland's teachers and administrators shouldn't be embarrassed by him. They should be proud of him.

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jo_jo said...

Thank you for this post. I am about to embark upon a contract teaching position and I am determined to provide a real learning experience for the students within the context of the institution I will be working for. This post strengthens my resolve that time in my classrooms will not be wasted.


The Princess Mom said...

You're welcome, Joanna. Your students are lucky to have you. I read an article in Newsweek, I think it was, last year--the results of a survey of high school students asked whether they thought their classes were too hard, just right or not hard enough. The majority--students of all abilities, not just gifted--said their courses were not hard enough. The principal quoted in the article was surprised. "I would have thought they wanted us to go easier on them."

We've got the self-esteem thing all wrong. Kids learn to believe in themselves when they are challenged and overcome that challenge, not when they're given a pat on the back and a trophy just for showing up.