Mr. Sweeney was the sort of English teacher who knew he was fighting an uphill battle half the time. He was a man who somehow resembled his own name – medium build, black hair, and a thick moustache that he pulled off quite well. There are generally two kinds of teacher, the kind who likes having the authority to push kids around, and the kind who likes to teach.
Mr. Sweeney was the kind who liked to teach, and he was refreshingly laid back about it. Here’s the book, here’s a few things to think about, here’s the test. Sometimes we were into it, sometimes we weren’t, but he wasn’t going to fight you. You want to sit there and pull C’s, knock yourself out.
One day in late May when the backwoods AC was on the fritz, Mr. Sweeney wrote the word “paradox” on the board, asked for a definition, and then surveyed with sadness the zombified AP English class in front of him. We were all doing the slack-jawed Ferris Bueller thing, fanning ourselves with accordion-folded notebook paper while we stared at him and slobbered.
So just to see if there was a flash of consciousness in the whole room, Mr. Sweeney went ahead and wrote the definition on the board for us – “Two places to park your boat.”
None of us batted an eye. A couple of otherwise good students on autopilot started writing it down.
That’s of course not the literary definition of a paradox. I think Mr. Sweeney probably spent a good chunk of the rest of that day pondering the “A” in “Advanced Placement English.”
But as I’m watching calls for boycotts on Target, on BP, on all kinds of stuff, I think about Mr. Sweeney because he was the one who inadvertently started the most successful boycott I’ve ever seen.
The Olentangy High School Boycott Lunch Movement.
He started the boycott by having us read “Civil Disobedience,” by Thoreau. I don’t really remember if Thoreau mentioned boycotts, but we discussed them as a modern form of civil disobedience.
I might have actually read it, but truthfully, I doubt it. I wasn’t too focused on the “A” myself.
Sitting around with a bunch of guys at lunch that day, we decided that a boycott would be a pretty fun thing to do. Rise up, take the power back, you know?
The trouble was, we weren’t particularly angry about anything, and between us there was not a lot of spending power. What could we boycott that anyone would care about?
Well, lunch, that’s what. We were sitting there eating the only thing we ever bought at school. What do you guys say we all boycott lunch?
I don’t know, said the grumbling. We all like to eat lunch. And boycotts have a purpose – what would be the purpose of a lunch boycott?
We all sat around thinking about it, and then I think Louis Westinghouse pointed out that they had just switched from big plastic trays to smaller, disposable styrofoam trays. Going through the line the next day, Louis said, “Hey, we want the big trays back. These trays are too small.”
The standard crew of lunchladies – not too amused by our smartassery. Environmentalism, the green movement – not a big thing in 1987; I don’t know if that even occurred to us. The lunchladies said, shut up kid, eat your lunch.
Hold on a second, we all said when we sat down. We’re the ones coming in here and buying this stuff every day. Why do they get to tell us any such thing?
Check it out, Louis said. We know what we want, we’re locating something to be angry about and it’s time to rise up, take the power back.
The Boycott Lunch movement was born.
Fortunately, Louis had a far greater social network than the rest of us – not that it was really necessary in a tiny school like ours. But we started doing it the next day, all of us came in with our lunches packed, and made some signs to walk around with in the halls between classes.
Our numbers grew in no time. Louis brought in the athletes and cheerleaders, the rest of us brought in smaller cliques of skaters and nerds and burgeoning alcoholics. Pretty soon we were sitting there cracking up over our brown bags, watching the lunch line shrink inexorably.
It quickly began to have an economic effect. There were probably seven or eight hundred kids from grades six through twelve buying lunch in that cafeteria, and we convinced about a fifth of them to start packing.
Not enough to shut the place down, but do the math – that’s a few hundred bucks a day, and a solid grand a week. Back in 1987, a remarkable chunk of change.
Pretty soon, my old nemesis Mr. Thompson made an announcement. He declared the Boycott Lunch movement against the rules – anyone boycotting lunch would get a detention!
We laughed like a bunch of howler monkeys, literally right there in front of him. Come on, now. You can’t make us buy lunch. You can’t outlaw brown bags.
You can outlaw the signs, but you can’t kill the movement, man.
Damn right – the second he made that announcement, our numbers swelled. To this day, I have no idea why he thought that idiotic strategy would work on us.
Keep off the grass? Let’s play soccer. We developed secret Boycott Lunch hand signals and kept right on doing it. Was the guy trying to stifle a movement, or get us all laid? Nothing spells popular like the principal’s hit list.
People started checking with their parents – is there any way the principal can make us buy lunch? Hell, no, there isn’t. Hundreds of kids spontaneously decided to begin packing their lunches while not vocally or officially boycotting anything at all.
By the end of that week, it was like a primitive flash mob, hundreds of kids grinning over their brown bags, while the lunchline slowed to a trickle. Finally one of the cafeteria ladies came out, an unsanctioned negotiator without Thompson’s blessing. She said, you guys have any idea what you’re doing? This is crippling the whole cafeteria, you’ve got to stop.
No, we told her. The only folks have to stop doing something is you – you need to stop with the styrfoam trays and give us the big plastic ones back. We’re a bunch of indifferent, smartass slackers, and for some reason we only dimly understand, we’re not going to take it anymore.
The trays? That’s still all you want, the stupid trays?
Better watch out, we said. Before we think of something else.
Seething with rage, they gave us back the trays, and we released our economic stanglehold on the cafeteria’s economy. The very next day, we sat around with our chests out, eating our pizza burgers off of big plastic trays, a victory for troublemakers and environmentalists alike.
Probably the most important lesson I learned at that place – that you can rob authority figures of their power by simply ignoring them, that their power is frequently an illusion you can poke a finger through – and the whole school tried their best not to teach it to us.
Well, the whole school except Mr. Sweeney. He was trying to teach us that through Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, something few of us read but oddly, somehow, a bunch of us seemed to understand anyway.