City Lights: Thankful for our free society

I guess it's fitting that this column will run in print on Thanksgiving Day. Every year at this time, we're supposed to reflect on what we're thankful for — which, in the United States, should include accessible schooling, lenient authorities and the right to free speech.

A couple weeks ago, I covered a protest outside Huntington Beach High School, led by a core group of students who felt the school objectified learning too much and stifled their creativity. The story drew more reader comments than any I've written in years. Here are a few, with spelling and punctuation intact:

"What they are saying is true. Teachers are told to prepare their students for the tests that come at the end of the year. In more of my classes then not, that is all I learn — just enough to pass the test."

—HBHS Student

"Where is the truant officer?"


"The principal and teachers are so consumed with grades and test scores to keep their API high, that all they do is memorization drills. They threaten to hold kids back and even have 'superkindergarten' to hold kids back and keep the scores high."


"Ah leave em out there on the street. Let them get used to it, thats [sic] where they will end up anyway."


Of course, those are anonymous posters. Among those who went on the record, Principal Janie Hoy defended her school and cited the Model United Nations as an example of students getting to spread their wings. I also spoke to teachers union president Shawn Werner, who acknowledged that government standards could be a drag but stressed that schools found other ways to liven the day.

At any rate, the protest has ended. Rafael DeCamargo, who led it along with two friends, told me he encountered mostly hostility the day he returned to campus but had some classmates thank him and even teachers lead discussions on civil disobedience, using his endeavor as a model.

Regarding the merits of the students' protest, I'm impartial. I haven't had their teachers and don't know how rigid or non-rigid their classes are. I do know from having been an education reporter that many people are unhappy with No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on objective measures, and their complaints always sounded legitimate to me.

But as I read the comments on the protest story, I remembered a moment from my own school days. Once in elementary school, maybe fourth or fifth grade, I complained to my teacher that we didn't learn much in class, that the assignments were too easy, the curriculum too redundant. I was a little cocky sometimes.

The next day, the teacher called me aside and said she had spent the last 24 hours mulling over my remarks. Perhaps she went on to explain that state standards were tough or that she had a lot of different kids to accommodate — I can't remember.

But one thing she said always stuck with me: "Michael, every time someone opens their mouth to speak, you learn something."

Years later, I know that she was right. Teachers have jobs to do, and sometimes the rush for API or AYP scores can make class a little dry. But education doesn't begin with the first bell and end with the last one — we learn as much from interacting with peers, joining clubs and pursuing passions in our spare time as we do from multiple-choice exams.

There's that wonderful line in the Beatles' "Revolution" where John Lennon opines that, instead of complaining about the institution, "you better free your mind instead."

In a society as free as ours — where students can protest outside campus for days and face relatively minor consequences — that's not hard to do.

Like I said, it's something to be thankful for.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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