The Education Of Allen Lee

Allan Lee And The Mad Magazine-Deficient Generation Y Hypothesis

The Bullet (You) Almost Dodged

I almost made it, and so did you.

Exhibiting ferocious white-knuckled effort (which, by the way, makes any keyboarding an iffy proposition) I had steadfastly resisted posting on the Allen Lee episode, sparing readers from yet another journalistic pontification on this topic – until today, when I caved.1

After all, recent Heck Of A Guy entries have dealt with a local political blogger being escorted from a School Board Open Meeting and threatened with arrest by the police for laughing and suspicion of intent to heckle and a college student being denied a teaching degree because of a picture she posted of herself on MySpace committing the apparently unpardonable transgression of an adult imbibing (probably) an alcoholic substance while (certainly) wearing a silly pirate hat.2

Those three Heck Of A Guy posts3 in less than two weeks supporting the exercise of free speech represent an embarrassingly high level of constitutional issues and social awareness contaminating the usual business of this blog, e.g., lamenting the delayed onset of spring locally, paying homage to and (respectfully, gently, tenderly) cracking wise about Leonard Cohen, testing the reader’s ability to differentiate between wrestling holds and sex toys, developing the optimal dishwasher-dependent recipe for chocolate-infused vodka, …, especially since my investment in free speech typically extends no further than exercising my inalienable (one desperately hopes) right to ridicule anything that might generate a cheap laugh.

Adding another blog entry to that PBS-congruent issues group could well damage my reputation as a dilettante dabbling in the ephemerally superficial.

Consequently, I am, much like Noah, Saul on the Road to Damascus, and Moses, a reluctant servant of fate, undertaking this post only after a serendipitous epiphany revealed unto me not only the fundamental dynamic of this messy affair but also the solution for preventing similar trouble in the future. When a humanitarian imperative thus beckons, one has the responsibility to respond.

Before the presentation of this cosmic revelation and resolution, some background information is necessary for those of you who spent the past month residing in a non-networked cave.4

The Allen Lee Story

The bullet point5 version of the Allen Lee story follows:

  • Allen Lee is a senior at nearby Cary-Grove High School, carrying a 4.2 grade point average with no previous record of behavioral, disciplinary, or legal problems.
  • Last week, he and the other students enrolled in a Creative English course were given an in-class assignment to write about whatever came to mind and were specifically instructed not to censor what they wrote. According to Lee’s attorney, the teacher also urged the students to “be creative,” encouraging this goal by promising “there will be no judgment and no censorship.”6
  • Lee responded to the assignment with an essay that spotlighted stabbing, drug use, and a dream about a shooting spree. A representative excerpt follows:
    “So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone…, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.”

    The essay ends with these lines:

    My current English teacher [the teacher who assigned the essay] is a control freak intent on setting a gap between herself and her students like a 63 year old white male fortune 500 company CEO, and a illegal immigrant. If CG was a private catholic school, I could understand, but wtf is her problem. And baking brownies and rice crispies does not make up for it, way to try and justify yourself as a good teacher while underhandedly looking for complements on your cooking. No quarrel on you qualifications as a writer, but as a teacher, don’t be surprised on inspiring the first cg shooting.
  • Lee’s English teacher read the essay and reported its contents to a supervisor and the principal. After discussion, school officials reported the incident to the police.
  • Lee was then charged with two counts of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Cary police say they use that charge for pranksters who pull fire alarms or dial 911 unnecessarily; it also can apply when someone’s writings disturb an individual. … The teacher was alarmed and disturbed by the content,” [the police] said.”
  • Lee is currently kept isolated from other students and is being tutored at administrative offices while school officials decide his future

The Response From The Public And The Press

The school is right. The school is wrong. Lee is creepy. Lee just handed in the essay as assigned. The essay is a cry for help. The essay is a barely veiled threat. The teacher is paranoid. The teacher fulfilled her responsibility to protect herself and the other students. The student should have been disciplined by the school but shouldn’t have been charged with a crime. He should go to jail. It’s because he’s Asian. It’s because he wrote about killing people. The press and bloggers have made too much of this. The school started it. I don’t care who started it, I’m going to end it. I’ll give you something to cry about. Do you want me to pull the car over?

Hmm. I may have overshot a tad, but you get the idea.

The DrHGuy Post-Alexandrian Gordian Knot Disentanglement Methodology

Allen Lee’s essay is easy to criticize. His stream of consciousness riff is not, for example, likely to be mistaken for a long-lost chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He misspells simple words,7 he changes point of view without warning, and there is also that dreadful quotation from the Green Day song.

Oh, and there’s blood, gore, necrophilia, and an evocation of the all too real Virginia Tech shooting, which was certainly in poor taste and, given the circumstances, inappropriate. As many writers have noted, there are implicit limits to free speech and to teacher’s instructions.

I was, in fact, reading these lines from one such admonition, a column by Eric Zorn, …

Lee’s assignment was to write whatever came to mind without censoring or editing himself. But even when a teacher waves off the customary guidelines of taste, spelling and grammar, obvious limits still apply.

He couldn’t have outlined a plot to assassinate the president without running afoul of the law, for instance. He couldn’t have offered the teacher $1,000 to murder the principal. And, more to the point, he couldn’t threaten to kill the teacher.

… when [cue the epiphany] the vision came upon me.

My epiphany took the form of a scenario I’ve seen played for unearned laughs at least a half-dozen times in movies and TV shows:8 The set-up consists of a therapist reassuring a new patient that nothing is out of bounds in a therapy session because he (the therapist) has heard it all before and there is nothing that will shock or upset him. The patient, overcoming significant hesitation and discomfort about his problem, does admit his secret concerns, at which time – of course – the therapist launches into an exhibition of extreme repulsion, declaring the patient’s revealed behavior so disgusting, so loathsome, so perverse that it is not only impossible to help the patient, it is impossible to sit in the same room with someone capable of such depravity. The patient, thus ambushed, is left dumbfounded, disillusioned, and devastated. Much mirth and hilarity ensue.

I immediately realized that the Allen Lee9 issues of taste, cries for help, level of threat, personal animosities between student and teacher, etc. could all be secondary to the actual nidus of the problem.

I submit that the crux of this matter could well be10 the failure of Allen Lee, like many in his generation, to recognize those implicit limits. In other words, I think it probable that, incredible as it may seem,

Allen Lee believed what he was told

That poor schmuck.

By way of explanation,
Show of hands – does any reader over 40 think that a high school teacher’s instructions to “write about whatever comes to mind” means “write about whatever comes to mind, even if the first things that pop into your head are blood, gore, and necrophilia” or that “do not judge or censor what you are writing” means “do not judge or censor what you are writing, regardless of how threatening that writing is to others?”

I didn’t think so.

Eric Zorn would know better; heck, I would know better.

But, I think it’s not only possible but likely that Allen Lee thought he had carte blanche to write whatever he wished for no other reason than – well, his teacher saying he had carte blanche to write whatever he wished. It was an offer of a free shot, a no penalty opportunity to take a literary swing at his opponent.11

But why would a smart kid, an honor student like Allen Lee take those words literally? How could he have a psychological blind spot that precluded his awareness of what was being said between the lines when that process is an elemental, involuntary exercise for most of us?

Well, not being acquainted with Allen Lee, I don’t know. Maybe because my generation has been too lenient as parents. Maybe because teachers give vacuous assignments like “write about whatever comes to mind.” Maybe he’s psychotic or afflicted by one of those weird autistic variations that have no symptoms of autism but are somehow conceptually autistic. Maybe he’s controlled by space aliens or he’s a time traveler unaccustomed to the ways of 21st century suburban America. Like I said, I dunno.12

But, I do have a theory

The Mad Magazine-Deficient Generation Y Hypothesis

One way or another, my cohort was taught that certain social conventions precluded always saying what one meant and that it was therefore incumbent upon us to figure out what others actually meant, regardless of the words they used. One especially effective didactic instrument toward that end, which I’ll use here as a representative for all means of conveying that message, was Mad Magazine.

During my childhood and adolescence,it seemed that everybody read Mad Magazine,13 one recurrent feature of which was an offering entitled What They Say and What They Mean

These articles paired the words spoken by certain individuals in certain situations with those individuals’ actual thoughts hidden behind those spoken words. While the following are not genuine Mad Magazine examples but are instead generated by me for this post, they are illustrative of the genre:

They say: We can find an acceptable compromise.
They mean: Do it my way.

They say: That’s an interesting idea.
They mean: That’s a idiotic, completely unworkable, and probably dangerous idea.

They say: There are no stupid questions.
They mean: Don’t ask any more stupid questions.

They say: I want a spouse who can also be my best friend.
They mean: I want a best friend who is sexually insatiable, good looking, and rich.

They say: No one ever accused me of being afraid of hard work.
They mean: I can sit idly among folks working like mad without showing a trace of fear.

They say: To protect others, we are charging Allen Lee with disorderly conduct on the legal theory that it is a crime to write something that disturbs an individual, even if the individual being disturbed is a teacher reading exactly the essay she assigned.14
They mean: We have to do something to make it seem as though we’re taking action and we need to make an example of this kid but not get carried away with a charge so severe that it will look like we’re making an example of this kid.

As the Mad Magazine and the other channels of teaching the younger generation to decode what people say into what they mean have become less available to Allen Lee and his cohort, this kind of error is likely to occur again. Perhaps if Allen Lee had been properly introduced to the classics, such as Mad Magazine, he wouldn’t be in this fix because he would have known that when

They say:
Write about whatever comes to mind

They mean:
Write about whatever comes to mind – that won’t upset or anger me. And, in fact, it might be a good idea to write about something that I’ll like.
If high school seniors don’t know this, the schools and society are sending them unprepared into the world.

What next? What if voters started believing politicians? Or the congress believed the President? What if husbands believed their wives really wanted to know if they were getting fat or if wives believed that their husbands really wanted to know if they were the best lovers ever? Oh, the carnage, the humanity.

Generation Y shouldn’t get mad; they should get Mad Magazine.

What more important legacy can our generation bequeath to the youngsters of today than that basic percept of human relationships emblazoned on our minds since the 60s:

Don’t trust anyone over 30
or under 30
or exactly 30

Instilling just enough cynicism in an entire generation to allow them to properly interpret the meaning behind our social lies may require a concerted national campaign. If so, I have a candidate for the poster boy.

In any case, the kids somehow have to learn the principle, ancient when it was put into verse by Gilbert and Sullivan over 100 years ago in HMS Pinafore,

Things are seldom what they seem:
Skim milk masquerades as cream

Because, God knows, the rest of us aren’t going to start saying what we mean.

  1. For those in need of a simile to picture exactly how I caved, I would say that I caved “like a West Virginia coal mine supported only by a house of wet, unlaminated cardboard cards.” []
  2. There was also a Beastie Boys poster visible in the drinking photo, compounding the felony. []
  3. There were two “drunken pirate” posts []
  4. Not, one hopes, the West Virginia mine referenced in Footnote #1 []
  5. OK, that’s the last bullet pun, I promise. []
  6. The assignment included the following guidelines for a “free writing” exercise:
    “Write nonstop for a set period of time.”
    “Do not make corrections as you write.”
    “Keep writing, even if you have to write something like, ‘I don’t know what to write.’ ”
    “Write whatever comes into your mind.”
    “Do not judge or censor what you are writing.”
    The assignment included additional guidelines such as, “If your free writing is neat and coherent, you probably haven’t loosened up enough.” []
  7. There is no reason ones stream of consciousness cannot be expressed by correctly spelled words []
  8. What? You expected an epiphany in the burning bush, penitent struck blind, voice-of-God-booming-from-the-sky mode? You do realize this is the Heck Of A Guy Blog, not Leviticus, don’t you? []
  9. For those unfamiliar with the workings of epiphanies, Allen Lee is the patient and his teacher is the therapist in the receding scenario. I am the producer of the show. You are the laugh track. Paul is the walrus. []
  10. Personal epiphanies are no excuse for pseudo-certainty and the attendant abandonment of the subjunctive, especially when dealing in the complex, confusing, and contradictory realm of psychology. []
  11. The objection may be raised that students were warned that dangerous threats would be reported. The most blatant exposition of that warning is a quotation from another student in the same class reported in the Northwest Herald, “But, from the first day of class she has told us on every assignment that if she sees anything that is a danger to the students or the faculty of our school that she HAS to report it. I heard it and the other students heard it – including Allen.” As one who routinely scurries past the fine print of software end-user licensing agreements to get to the business of installing the program, I’m not impressed with the impact of standardized, pro forma warnings. And in this particular case, a teacher’s official admonition not to censor would seem to me to suspend the preceding official admonition to only color within the lines. It’s the unofficial, implicit shared understandings that put us in synch with others, not legalistic compliance with bureaucratic, often arbitrary regulations. Another show of hands – Who has been frustrated by being held up by someone “only going the speed limit” when the rest of the traffic, including you and the three Illinois State Police cars who have passed you in the last 15 minutes, are going a safe and sane 15 mph over that speed limit? OK, there you go. []
  12. I realize that I may be the only person writing about this matter who is not 110% sure of the right answer. That has, however, never stopped me before, nor shall it now. Besides, I’m the one with the epiphany. []
  13. Or knew someone who read Mad Magazine and insisted on sharing the insights therein garnered []
  14. Note to self: Research means of preventing Heck Of A Guy Blog from being read by citizens of Cary, Illinois []

Comments are closed.