By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
American poet Stephen Dunn (bio here) reminds us that “all good poems are a victory over something.” For the folks in Rittman , Ohio (pop. 6,491) those words have a decidedly athletic context. The Rittman Indians High School football team was suffering through another miserable season at 1-7 and team morale was plummeting. Like most bad institutions there’s plenty of blame to go around but the school administration thought it had its scapegoat. Junior Defensive End Nick Andre had been tasked with composing a poem about something that made him angry. His English teacher told him anything he wrote about was fine as long as it was authentic and sincere. Not content with such weighty issues as drone strikes or government shutdowns, Nick decided to write about what he knew — the abysmal football team and allegations of nepotism and favoritism that were weighing down the squad.
In his free verse piece entitled “Stupid” Nick eschewed any names but deftly placed the blame squarely where his sense of justice demanded that it rest – on the shoulders of the coach and its start receiver who just happened to be the son of the coach and the brother of the offensive coordinator who calls all the plays for the squad. Wondering aloud how the player “earned” his scholarship to the University of Akron, Andre Wrote:
Nonstop passes from best friend to best friend,
Continuously doing what doesn’t work,
The inability to separate being a father and a coach.
Dropped passes but yet still the “super star”, [sic]
Where’s my scholarship?
I can drop passes,
And be afraid to take a hit.
That’s top of the line div. 1 material right there.
If that’s what they wanted,
They definitely got it.
The whole town will be glad when he is gone.
For anyone who doesn’t understand what I am saying,
Juvenile? Yes. Sour grapes? Well, maybe. But sincere? No question.
You might think a meeting with the principal followed by a “revision” of the draft would be all that was required, but in football crazy northeast Ohio, Nick had offended the King and his wrath would not be so easily assuaged. Principal Nick Evans promptly suspended Andre on the Monday following the poem’s live reading in class because he “wrote a mean and disrespectful poem about another student and our athletic director/head coach.” Evans compared the poem to harassment and that current school bugaboo, bullying, and then to drive home the point about what really matters in this mapdot of a town, permanently kicked Nick off the football team. His four day suspension and accompanying zeroes on his work would not be lessened either.
Echoing centuries of dissidents to power, Nick said, “I felt like it was my right to express what I just felt,” he told the local Fox TV station. His mother, Julie Andre, agreed and refused to sign the suspension letter.
But thankfully, not everyone in Rittman Ohio is so averse to the poetry of the First Amendment. On Thursday, after Nick had served two days of his suspension, his mother got a call from Superintendent James Ritchie saying the school had reconsidered: Nick’s suspension from school was over and he was reinstated to the football team effective immediately. No word on whether Nick’s lawyer, Cleveland Civil Rights Attorney Avery Friedman, who has won a number of cases involving students who were disciplined for expressing their opinions, had any role in the “reconsideration.” But Friedman did say that, “The breadth of expression, even in public schools, is virtually limitless, unless speech is creating material disruption to the educational process, which certainly isn’t here.”
Oh, and some other changes had occurred too in the wake of the poem. The star wide receiver and his coach dad had resigned from the team that same Thursday Ritchie advised. Citing the distraction caused by the poem, Coach Bill Dennis and his son decided to hang up the cleats.
In paying homage to the dean of American poets, Robert Frost, who fervently believed that poetry was the critical brake on unbridled power, President John F. Kennedy wrote:
When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.
It seems that little piece of wisdom holds true in northeast Ohio — when aided by a competent attorney like Avery Friedman.
Amen brothers Kennedy and Frost. Amen.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
P.S. I’d like to thank all my fellow guest bloggers and JT for their understanding and support during my recent illness. I’ m back and raring to go. I offer this little submission on the inevitable victory of art over power in homage to the fine work they do every day on this blog.