Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore
"Moore, YOUR SHIRTTAIL is out!"
It was the voice of Mr. Ryan, the assistant principal for discipline at my high school, and he was right on my back. Not figuratively. He was literally on it.
I did as I was told.
"You know the rules. Shirts are to be tucked in."
I tucked it in.
He was carrying "The Paddle," a shortened version of a cricket bat, but with holes drilled in it to get maximum velocity.
"C’mon, this is not right," I protested. "It’s a shirt!"
"Bend over. Don’t make me tell you again."
I did as I was told. And as I was bending over, I marked the date on my mental calendar as being the last time I would ever do what I was told to do again.
I felt that intensely. The flat board of hard wood smacking against my rear end, and the two-second delay before the pain set in.
He did it again. Now it really hurt. I could already feel the heat of my skin through my pants, and I wanted to take that paddle and bash him over the head.
Now the greatest pain became the humiliation I was experiencing thanks to the growing crowd and the eyes of everyone in the cafeteria who was standing to get a look at what was happening in the hallway.
"That’ll do," the sadist said. "Don’t let me see you with your shirt out again."
And with that he walked away. He had no idea how profoundly he had just changed my life—and his. He had, in that one act of corporal punishment, created his own demise. How many times had this man struck a child in his career? A thousand? Ten thousand? Whatever the number, this would be his last.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how one minute you’re just walking down the hall with your shirttail out, you’re thinking about girls or a ball game or how you’re on your last stick of Beaman’s—and then the next hour you make a decision that will affect all the decisions you make for the rest of your life. So random, so unplanned. In fact, it puts the whole idea of making plans for your life to shame, and you realize you really are wasting your time if you’re trying to come up with a college major, or how many kids to have, or where you want to be in ten years. One day I’m thinking about law school, and the next week I’ve committed all my meager teenage resources and energy to stripping an adult of whatever power he thinks he wields with that big paddle.
I straightened upward, red-faced for all to see in the cafeteria. There were plenty of snickers and guffaws, but mostly there was that look people have when they’ve just seen something they’ve never seen before. I was known as a good student. I was known as someone who had never been given the paddle. No one ever expected to watch me being beaten by the assistant principal. I was not the type of student you would see being told to "bend over." And that was what was so entertaining about this particular beating to the gathering crowd.
It’s not like Assistant Principal for Discipline Dennis Ryan hadn’t been gunning for me in the past, or that I hadn’t done anything to deserve his wrath. I had done plenty. By the time I was halfway through my senior year, I had organized my own miniprotests against just about every edict that Ryan and the principal, Mr. Scofield, had laid down. The latest of these revolts involved convincing nine of the eighteen students in the senior Shakespeare class to walk out and quit the class.
The teacher had just handed back to me my twenty-page paper on Hamlet with a giant red "0" on top of it. That was my grade: Nothing. Zip. I stood up.
"You cannot treat me this way," I said to him politely. "And I am officially dropping out of this class." I turned to the students.
"Anybody want to join me?"
Half of them did.?The zero grade would lower my GPA to a 3.3 by the end of the year. I couldn’t have cared less.
This was not my first run-in with a teacher. The teacher who ran the student council class also flunked me. I never missed a day of that class. I made more motions and participated in more debates than perhaps anyone else in there. And that’s what bothered the teacher who was the student council advisor.
"How can you flunk me?" I confronted him.
"I’m flunking you because you create too much trouble in here," he answered smugly. "I like a nice quiet, peaceful student council. You have made this year too difficult for me."
All of this weighed on my mind on the walk home that day of my public paddling by the assistant principal. How would I exact my revenge? I had to look no further that night than the evening newspaper.
A copy of the local Flint Journal lined the box of trash I was cleaning out in our garage. I looked down and between stains of Miracle Whip and Faygo Redpop I noticed a story that reminded me about how the voting age in America had recently been lowered to eighteen. Hmmm, I thought, I’ll be eighteen in a few weeks.
I went back inside the house and, an hour later, I picked up the town weekly, the Davison Index. There, on the front page, taunting me, daring me, my future calling me: Hello, Mike. Read this!
SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION JUNE 12, TWO SEATS OPEN
Huh. I’ll be able to vote for school board in a few months. Cool.
Wait a minute! If I can vote...can I run? Can I run for a seat on the Board of Education? Would this not make me one of the bosses of the principal and vice principal? Yes? Yes? Whoa.
The next day, I called the county clerk’s office, the people in charge of elections.
"Um, yeah," I stammered into the phone, not quite believing I was making this call. "Um, I was wondering that, now that eighteen-year-olds can vote, can we also run for office?"
"No. Not all offices. Which office would you like to run for?"
"Hang on, lemme check." Within a minute he was back on the phone.
"Yes. The required age for school board candidates is eighteen."
WOW! I couldn’t believe it. But then panic set in. How could I afford such a thing? They must charge you a lot of money to put your name on the ballot.
"How much does it cost to get on the ballot?" I asked the man.
"Cost? Nothing. It’s free."
Free? This just kept getting better. Until he added the following:
"Of course you do have to get the required number of signatures on a petition in order to have your name placed on the ballot."
Damn. I knew there was a catch. There were twenty thousand residents in the Davison School District, comprising the town of Davison and the townships of Davison and Richfield. Going all over the school district to collect God knows how many signatures was going to be next to impossible. I mean, I still had lots of algebra homework to do.
"How many names do I need on these petitions?" I asked with resignation.
"Did you say twenty?"
"Yes. Twenty. You need twenty signatures on a petition that you can pick up at the board of education offices."
I could not believe that I only needed twenty names on a petition—and then, suddenly, I would be an official candidate! I mean, twenty names was nothing! I knew at least twenty stoners who would sign anything I put in front of them.?I thanked the man, and the next day I went to the superintendent’s office to pick up the petition. The secretary asked if I was picking up the petition for one of my parents.
"No," I replied. And instead of adding "Would you like to see the welts on my butt or would you rather I call Child Protective Services?" I simply said, "It’s for me."
She picked up the phone and made a call.
"Yes, I have a young man here who says he wants to run for school board. What is the age requirement these days? Uh-huh. I see. Thank you."
She hung up the phone and bit her lip.?"How old are you?" she asked.?"Seventeen," I replied.?"Oh, well, then, you can’t run. You have to be eighteen." "But I’ll be eighteen by the day of the election," I blurted out.?"One minute," she said, picking up the phone again.
"Can a seventeen-year-old run if he will be eighteen on election day? Uh-huh. I see. Yes. Thank you."
"Apparently you may run," she said, as she reached into the file cabinet and pulled out the petition. "Make sure that every signature is that of a registered voter who lives within the boundaries of the school district. If you don’t have twenty valid names, you will not be placed on the ballot."
I had the names within the hour. When the twenty signers asked me why I was running, I just said, "To fire the principal and assistant principal." That was my entire platform on Day One, and it seemed to play well, at least to twenty citizens.
"What about college?" my mother asked, perplexed when I told her I had decided to run for school board. "How can you serve on the school board and go to the University of Detroit?"
"I guess if I win, I’ll go to U of M in Flint." She liked the sound of that. If I won, I would not be leaving home. My parents were not the type to kick you out at eighteen (though that is when my sisters would leave). They did not like to see us go.
I returned the next day to the school board office and turned in my petition. Word soon spread through town that "a hippie" had qualified to be on the June ballot. I set a goal of knocking on every door in the school district. I handed voters a flyer that I had written up outlining my feelings about education and about the Davison schools specifically. I told people the administrators in the high school had to go. I’m guessing this frightened most parents.
But there were some in town who were delighted with the idea of a young person on the school board. OK, they were all under twenty-five.
And then there was the majority, the ones who noticed I had long hair. The week I began to campaign, the racist governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, won the Michigan Democratic Presidential primary. Not a good sign for me and my chances. (This was also my very first time voting. I cast my first vote ever as a citizen for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm for president.)
The Chamber of Commerce types in town were appalled at the thought of me, a kid, winning, as were many of the Protestant pastors, the local rednecks, and the pro-war crowd (which was made up of all of the above).
The problem was, the town pooh-bahs had a really bad strategy to stop me. Six of them went down to the school board office and took out their own petitions to run against me. Six of them against me. Clearly they missed a few days of civics class when they were young. You don’t win by running the most candidates – you’ll split the vote and your opponent will win with a plurality. It was to my good fortune that they did not know the word plurality and I did. I taunted them and challenged more Republicans to go get their own petitions to see if they could beat me!
And that was when I got a taste of my own medicine. In addition to the six older, conservative adults who would oppose me, an eighteen-year-old decided to also run against me — and thus split the already very small youth/liberal vote I was going to get. The other eighteen-year-old candidate was none other than the vice president of the student council, Sharon Johnson — the girl who was one of my only two dates in high school.
"Why are you running?" I asked her, a bit peeved that she was stealing my thunder.
"I don’t know, I thought it would be neat. We could both be on the school board!" (Two seats were open on the board, and her idea was that we could both win and serve together.)
Why was she still tormenting me? First student council, then the bra, then the steamed-up windows, and now she’s going to split the youth vote and sink any slight chance I might have had to get elected.
A week before the election, I received my first anonymous hate mail. It was addressed to the two eighteen-yearolds running. It read:
Michael F. Moore
What lame-brained fool ever talked you two brats into running for the school Board?
Moore, you talk about your vast knowledge about all affairs. Where and when did you acquire this? Why you haven’t even got brains enough to get a haircut.
You are asking the citizens of Davison to vote you into the school board, actually insulting their intelligence by so doing.
My advice to you both is this? Have your good Mother take your diapers off; get a job or go to school, acquire some of this wisdom only acquired through experience and hard knocks and then come around and run for offices. Why you haven’t even started to live as yet.
Sharon—at least you are a beautiful young lady and you deserve a better fate than to be elected to a school board which is really a thankless job.
One who knows what he is talking about.
Yes, Sharon, you are a beautiful young lady, unlike that long-haired lug. As hate mail goes, this was one of the nicer ones I would ever receive.
On the morning of election day I got up, ate my Cocoa Krispies, and went to school. There were still five days left before graduation, and I had finals to take. The yearbooks were handed out and they contained the results of another election: the senior class had voted me "Class Comic."
When school recessed at 1:30 p.m., I went and voted for me. I had focused my entire campaign on getting every eighteento twenty-five-year-old out to vote. There were nearly two hundred eligible voters just in my senior class. I had spent less than a hundred dollars on the campaign. We had spray-painted yard signs with stencils in my parents’ basement. There were no ads, only the one-page flyer I handed out going door to door.
There was a big turnout at the polls, and when they closed at 8:00 p.m., the counting of the paper ballots began. Less than two hours later, the results were announced.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the district’s assistant superintendent announced, "we have the results. In first place... Michael Moore."
I was shocked. The group of hippie students who had gathered to watch the votes being counted went crazy with delight. A reporter from a local station asked me how I felt about beating seven "adults."
"Well," I said. "I’m an adult, too. And I feel great."
"Well, congratulations," the reporter said, "you’re the youngest person ever elected to public office in the State of Michigan."
"Is that true?"
"Yes, it is. You beat the previous record by three years."
Across the gymnasium where the votes had been counted, I could see the disappointed looks on the faces of the realtors, the insurance salesmen, the country club wives. The following day, a reporter from Detroit called to tell me I was the youngest elected official in the entire country (there was no one under the age of eighteen who held public office). Did I have a comment about that?
What else was I gonna say? I was too deep in my own whirlwind about what had just happened to my life. Now I was going to be one of the seven people in charge of the school district, and the boss of both the principal and, most important, the assistant principal, Ryan. I was now in a position to take that fucking bat out of his hand.
The next morning, I went to school as I had for the previous twelve years. Walking down the hall on my way to Mr. Hardy’s creative writing class, I saw Assistant Principal Dennis Ryan coming toward me. Funny, there was nothing in his hand.
"Good day, Mr. Moore."
Mr. Moore? That was a first. But hey, after all, how else would you address your new boss? Yet I was still a student under him. Weird. He kept walking and so did I.
It became a week of high fives and black power handshakes (I know, I know — this was Davison) among the students, many of them relishing what havoc I could wreak. I was given a number of suggestions from my constituents: make the jocks take real classes; put a cigarette machine in the cafeteria; institute the "four-hour school day"; drop the white milk and have only chocolate; find out what’s in the "Thursday Surprise" at lunch and kill the person who makes it.
Five nights later on June 17, 1972 (non sequitur alert: at the same time, burglars five hundred miles away were breaking into a place called the Watergate), I lined up inside Davison High School with my nearly four hundred fellow graduates, all of us in our maroon-and-gold caps and gowns. Dress code rules were still in effect, but a number of students chose to secretly wear no pants or skirts. They did make sure that the area at the top of the gown had the requisite blouse and shirt and tie, because that could be seen by the authorities. Flashing the nether regions would take place later on the football field at the end of the ceremonies. Water balloons were also well hidden.
Mr. Ryan walked down the line five minutes before the ceremony inspecting each of the students, mostly to make sure that there were no projectile devices in people’s hands and to be certain that every boy was wearing a tie.
And it was then that Ryan came upon Billy Spitz. Billy was a kid from a family of simple means. His idea of a tie was what was called a "bolo tie" — two long strings hanging from a knot or a clamp at the neck. For many who came from the South to work in the factories of Flint, putting on a bolo tie was called "dressing up." It was what you wore to a dance or to church. It was a tie.
Not to Ryan.
"Step out of line!" he barked at Billy. "What is this?" he continued, as he pulled the bolo tie out from under Billy’s gown.
"It’s my tie, sir," Billy responded sheepishly.
"This is not a tie!" Ryan retorted for all to hear. "You’re outta here. Go on. Git! You’re not graduating."
"But, Mr. Ryan —"
"Did you hear me?" Ryan snapped, as he grabbed him and physically pulled him away from the rest of us, showing him the door. It sent a shock wave through the line of graduates. Even in the final minute of high school, we had to witness one last act of cruelty.
And not one of us said anything. Not the tough guy in back of Billy, not the Christian girl in front of him. And not me. Even though I was now officially one of the seven in charge of the schools, I remained silent. Maybe I was just too stunned to speak. Maybe I didn’t want to cause trouble before we got out to the football field, as I was planning to cause a heap of it out there (I had been chosen by the students to give the class speech). Maybe I was still cowed by Mr. Ryan and it would take more than an election for me to stand up to him. Maybe I was just happy it wasn’t me. I really didn’t know Billy, and so, like the other four hundred, I minded my own business.
When it was my time to speak on the graduation stage, I got through the only three sentences I had written. I had seven pages from a yellow legal pad rolled up in my hands to make it look like I had prepared a typical graduation speech. In fact, I had something else on my mind that I was going to say.
I had learned that one of our classmates, Gene Ford, was not to receive the gold honor cords of the National Honor Society because, due to a serious disability, he had to be mostly home-schooled. Even though his grades were high, no one made any provisions for counting his home grades, which would have definitely qualified him for the Honor Society.
Less than a minute into my speech, I came to an abrupt halt and told the crowd that the student sitting in the wheelchair in the front row was denied his honor cords because he wasn’t "normal" like the rest of us. What if, I suggested, we were the abnormal ones? Some of us seniors, I pointed out, had chosen not to wear our honor cords because we did not want to separate ourselves from those who, for whatever reason, didn’t have the same grades we had. I went into an extemporaneous rant about the oppressive nature of being in school and not having rights or a say in your own education. I then said I’d like to present my honor cords to Gene.
And so I left the stage and did just that. And the school board members who were present? Well, they just got a coming attractions trailer to the movie they were about to star in with me for the next four years.
* * *
The following day the phone rang and my mother said it was Billy Spitz’s mom. I took the phone. She was fighting back tears.
"My husband and I and Billy’s grandmother were all sitting in the stands waiting for Billy to walk across the stage, waiting for his name to be called. They called the entire class and never called Billy’s name. We couldn’t see him sitting with the rest of you. We didn’t understand. We were confused. And then we got worried. Where was he? We got up and looked everywhere for him. We went out to the parking lot and to our car. And that’s where we found him."
She began to cry.
"There, in the backseat, was Billy, all curled up in a ball, and crying. He told us what Mr. Ryan had done.
"We can’t believe this happened. He was wearing a tie! Why did this happen?"
"I don’t know, Mrs. Spitz," I said quietly.
"Were you there?" she asked me.?
"Did you see Mr. Ryan do this?"
"And you did nothing?"
"I was still a student." And a coward.
"You were also a school board member! Isn’t there anyhing you can do about this?"
Of course, there was nothing I could do. They weren’t going to hold graduation over to correct this injustice. I had a chance, maybe, to do something about it the night before. But I didn’t. I would never forget this small but powerful moment of my silence and looking the other way. I promised her I would not let this rest and that, as I said when I ran for election, I would work toward Mr. Ryan’s removal.
Two days later I was told to go to the home of the school board secretary and be sworn in. I rode my bicycle over to her house in my bare feet and was sworn in without my shoes on. She said, "Where are your shoes?"
"I’m not wearing any," I said. She just glared at my feet.
I raised my right hand, and when it came time to say the words about "defending the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic," I added, "especially domestic." She looked at me and rolled her eyes. She had taught my mother in high school. "She was maybe the worst teacher I had," my mother told me later. Mom also told me I should have worn some shoes.
* * *
The honeymoon period in my first year on the board of education was longer than any of us had expected. Most of the motions I made to improve the schools—including establishing some student rights—were passed. The board listened to what I had to say about how the high school was being run, and how the assistant principal might do better being on the police force (in Chile). I said that the principal was not a forward thinker; he stifled dissent and created a climate where new ideas were not encouraged. In my first year I became a conduit to the board for students, teachers, and parents so that their voices could be heard.
One Monday night about eight months into my term, the superintendent presented "letters of resignation" from the high school principal — and Assistant Principal for Discipline, Dennis Ryan. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that, just ten months after I was beaten with a high-velocity wooden board, the mission I went on by running for the school board had actually been accomplished. It caught me by surprise, as I did not think they were really going to do anything about this problem. True, they were not going to publicly fire them. They let them resign, to save face. Saving face was not yet something I was interested in, as I was not yet old enough to have the necessary compassion and mercy for two men who were just in the wrong job—and had a right to be treated with dignity and respect, even if one of them had not accorded the same to me and Billy Spitz and others. So to twist the knife in deeper, I asked the superintendent at the public meeting if the principal and assistant principal had made this decision on their own or did he, the superintendent, ask for these letters? He nodded his head quietly and said simply, "The latter."
The next day, the students in the high school couldn’t believe that one of their own actually got to say "You’re fired!" to the principal and assistant principal. We started thinking — what else can we do?
That was a dangerous thought.
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