This is not an announcement of a forthcoming addition to the
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 which is about a poor southern family who moves to
Before we moved here, we were living happily, I thought, in
Mom and Dad thought it might be nice to settle in
For several days, we drove through towns in
We bought a three-story red brick house and the entire third floor became Karl’s domain. He met a boy his age who played the drums, and the two of them formed their own little rock band. Dad and Mom both found jobs teaching English at
I wrote a paper describing the similarities and differences between the family in the book and our family. Mom rewrote it. It was a perfect paper except for one 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?”
“It’s just not an appropriate word to use. 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 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? You did this on a computer, right?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You saved it, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“Then all you have to do is open the document, delete the word pregnant, put in something else, and print another copy.”
“That’s ridiculous! There’s nothing wrong with the word pregnant. We use it at our house all the time. Not that anyone in my family is pregnant. 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.”
People snickered, and I felt my face grow red. I wished my best friend Gwen Curtis were there to stick up for me, but she was in a different class.
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. 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. I didn’t know what to think. Technically, it wasn’t my paper. I was tempted to march up to his desk and tell him that my mom, a college English professor, wrote it for me. But I figured I would get into even more trouble for not writing my own paper. It would be better to do as I was told and leave it at that.
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 said, “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 looked upset. “Honey, I just got a call from Mr. Hilton. He said he sent a note home with you. Could I see it, please?”
My heart sank. I hadn’t intended to show her or Dad the note. I was just going to sneak to the computer while Mom was fixing dinner and make the change. 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.” Before I could continue, I burst into tears.
“Oh sweetie,” Mom said, as she took me into her arms. It felt good to cry on her shoulder and smell her perfume.
“I made a big fool out of myself in English class today. I don’t know if I can ever go back.”
“Honey, it can’t be that bad. Why don’t you tell me what happened and 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 that. 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. “That arrogant fool!” she said. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the word pregnant, and I intend to write him a letter and tell him so. You’ll give him that letter tomorrow with your paper the way it is. If Mr. Hilton doesn’t like it, that’s too bad.”
“But Mom, he’ll give me an F if I don’t change the paper.”
“If he does, I’ll go to the principal. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go to the school board. What Mr. Hilton is doing is just not right, Stephanie, and that’s all there is to it.”
“Mom, I’m already the laughing stock of the whole school. This is just going to make it worse.”
“Stephanie, we have to stand up for what we believe. 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, there are girls your age who actually get pregnant. That can be a lot worse than what happened to you today.”
Mom was right. 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 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?”
“Last year, Mr. Hilton and Miss Rutledge had an affair that ended bitterly.”
“Get out of here!”
“I’m serious. I overheard Dad telling Mom about it last year. As the school superintendent, he didn’t think it was appropriate for a principal and a teacher to be romantically involved. 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. Dad went to Mr. Hilton and he broke it off. Miss Rutledge was really mad at him.”
“How do you know this?”
“Dad told Mom they were both at a school board meeting soon after this happened and Miss Rutledge wouldn’t even speak to him.”
“So Miss Rutledge could fire Mr. Hilton if he gives me an F on my paper.”
“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.”
“She hasn’t done anything to make his life miserable so far, has she?”
“Not that I know of,” Gwen answered. “She still hasn’t found a way to do it. Your situation could be it.”
“What if it isn’t? What if my mom takes this thing to your dad and the other school board members?”
“Trust me. 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, “In nine months, some brat’s gonna be calling me Uncle Karl.”
“Shut up!” I said, as I hung my head.
“Karl, I think Stephanie has had enough humiliation for one day,” said Mom.
“I’m sorry,” said Karl with a shrug.
When Mom told Dad she was planning to write a letter to Mr. Hilton, he said, “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,” said Dad. “Sometimes they’ll cut out parts of a letter they don’t like before they send it.”
Although I wasn’t writing a letter, was Mr. Hilton censoring my English paper by telling me I couldn’t write the word pregnant? If that was the case, Mom and Dad were right. Government was not one of my best subjects in school but I knew about our 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 expression 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 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 didn’t judge a paper on whether inappropriate words were used. She only determined whether the point was well made and she paid particular attention to grammar and spelling. Mom said she read my paper and she believed I made some 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 andsnickered, but I ignored them. When I walked into my English class that afternoon, I put Mom’s note and my untouched paper on the desk in front of Mr. Hilton. “What’s this?” he asked, glancing at the note.
“It’s a letter 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, and I’ll have another note for your mother. 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 was different from teaching high school students and that there were certain words that young people in my age group shouldn’t 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
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 didn’t agree with his decision to give me an F if I didn’t 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. When I told them what Gwen said about Mr. Hilton and Miss Rutledge, Dad said that was nobody’s business but theirs.
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. 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 up to the desk. We shook hands. “I don’t think we’ve met,” she said.
“I’m Stephanie Andrews. I’m a sophomore this year.”
“Hello Stephanie. What can I do for you today?”
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. 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 put the note on the desk. She picked it up, and as she read it, I thought I detected a ghost of a smile. “I see. Do you have a copy of this paper with you? I’d like to read it.”
This was another surprise. No principal ever took an interest in my schoolwork before. “Sure,” I said, as I took it out of my back pack.
“Do you have a free period today before your English class?” she asked.
“Yeah, I have third period free,” I said.
“Good,” she said. Instead of going to study hall, come here. We’ll talk about your paper.”
“Thanks,” I said. 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 talk to me about it. Technically, it was Mom’s paper, but what did that matter?
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? If she did, what would happen?
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 wouldn’t do to look too eager. 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, and please close the door,” she said.
I did what she asked and took a chair opposite her desk. I braced myself for what might come next.
Still smiling, Miss Rutledge said, “Stephanie, I think you have written an excellent paper. You have made some good points and I see nothing wrong with your use of the word pregnant.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” she answered. “In fact, although it’s been years since I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, it seems that John Steinbeck also used the word.”
“But wasn’t he older than me when he wrote that book?”
“Yes, but I don’t quite understand what Mr. Hilton has against you using that word. I’ll talk to him, and I’ll see that you get a passing grade. You have worked 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 the paper. Actually, Mom wrote it.
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 put my untouched paper on it along with the letter from my parents. “What’s this?” Mr. Hilton asked.
“My parents and I still think I deserve a passing grade for this paper,” I said. “I talked to Miss Rutledge about it, and she agrees.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Mr. Hilton.
I was ecstatic as I walked to my desk and sat down. Mr. Hilton closed the door and walked to the front of the room. As soon as he opened his mouth, the door opened and in walked Miss Rutledge with a broad grin on her face. Mr. Hilton glared at her but she only smiled and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Hilton. This will only take a moment. Class, it has come to my attention that Mr. Hilton doesn’t like you using the word pregnant in your writing. Is that right?”
“Yeah,” some of us muttered, and heads turned in my direction but I didn’t care.
“We’re going to see if we can’t change his mind,” she said. “Are you guys willing to help me?”
“Sure,” a few people said. Others just stared at her.
“On the count of three, we’re all going to say the word pregnant together. Ready, one, two, three.”
“Pregnant,” we mumbled, and there were a few titters.
“Come on,” 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, this time with more assurance.
“That’s better,” said Miss Rutledge. “but I don’t think we’ve convinced him. 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 yelled.
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.
Miss Rutledge picked up my paper. She scribbled something on it and 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’d written, “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. By the start of the next school year, Mrs. Hilton was, well, in the family way.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome