Oak Parkers Furious: Chicago Magazine Spurious?

In Chicago magazine: a trifle, a passing glance west at moody high school students.

In Oak Park: fury, anguish, grinding teeth.

The author of the trifle defends his work:

“It’s a fourteen-hundred-word article,” says Dan Santow. “And a lot of the criticism, I think, implies that we shortchanged the issue. Well, it was meant to be a 1,400-word article and not a 5,000-word article.”

We’ll step in here and speak for Santow. Yes, Chicago shortchanged the story. You ask a writer for 1,400 words on a tricky topic like teenage race relations and you’re shortchanging the living daylights out of it. But gee! Do you people out at Oak Park and River Forest High School think anyone but you wants to read 5,000 words on your kids? They’re not that interesting.

So 1,400 it was, written in bold, quick strokes and decked out in the October issue with headlines sure to snag the eye. “Race and Class Struggles.” “Twenty years after becoming a model of integration, is Oak Park and River Forest High set to explode?” With a photo of two kids who, according to the caption, started a newspaper that “touched off a crisis.”

We’ve read Santow’s article carefully. There is no crisis. Nothing’s about to explode. Santow’s news, such as it is, is that race relations are less than ideal among Oak Park’s high school kids, a few of whom last spring decided to say so by putting out their own newspaper with the wonderful title of S.P.E.W. (for “Stop Pretending Everything’s Wonderful”).

Michael Averbach, chairperson of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, read Santow’s article and wrote a furious letter to the editor. “The real story about race relations at Oak Park has yet to be written. It is an important and complex story that demands sensitivity, objectivity, and deep reflection. Dan Santow has demonstrated none of these capacities.”

Averbach is undoubtedly right about what the story not written demands. Alas, the 1,400-word report (a genre Hot Type knows intimately) makes demands of its own. Get it done fast, is one demand. Make it punchy, is the other.

“Back in the ant farm that is [Oak Park’s] high school . . .” Santow wrote, “the frustration and anxiety are palpable.”

They jumped all over him for that. But when you’re writing a mere 1,400 words, you get to finesse some things. “That’s one of the criticisms that surprise me,” Santow told us. “It seems to me it would be obvious to a reader of an article published in September that it was written while school wasn’t in session.”

You also get to try your hand at vivid writing. As in this characterization of assistant superintendent Larry Walker:

“Rotund and uncomplicated looking, he could be the goofy weatherman on a morning chat show were it not for his somber manner.”

Paradoxically, if Santow’s exercise had been a 5,000-word article, carefully considered and diligently edited, there would be no room for this incoherent sentence. Is “uncomplicated looking” a feckless way of saying “simple”? Is observing that this fellow’s sobriety saves him from goofiness similar to reflecting that the tree we see outside our window might be an oak if it wasn’t a catalpa?

Before writing, Averbach called Chicago to object. He reports that senior editor Gretchen Reynolds’s defense was that Walker “does not look particularly bright.” We spoke to Reynolds. She said she weighed Santow’s description against the above photo of Walker, “and it wasn’t clearly wrong. That’s fact-checking. Everything else is up to the discretion of the writer.”

But Santow’s critics don’t merely clamor for a higher order of writing and editing. Lamentably, they call the sentence racist. It is racist because Larry Walker is black and his function in Santow’s article is to be the school official trotted out to pigheadedly deny what’s happening under his nose.

“Since Walker is African-American,” Averbach contends outlandishly, “Santow’s malevolent word choice follows a traditional pattern of questioning the importance and capacity of African-Americans in positions of authority.”

Steven Gevinson, an English teacher who’s faculty adviser of the official school paper, Trapeze, fired off a letter longer than Santow’s article (and therefore unprintable by the magazine). He called Santow’s piece “outrageously sensationalistic, inflammatory, and irresponsible,” and homed in on the Walker passage.

“One would hope,” says Gevinson, “that Santow was unaware that for many readers the phrase [“uncomplicated looking’] would have insidious racial overtones, recalling old, apparently undying stereotypes. The sad irony, of course, is that a reporter with such putatively egalitarian purposes would betray such vile instincts.”

The odd thing is that if a 5,000-word piece had been written, Dr. Walker might have emerged as one of its heroes. As Santow told us, “I don’t dislike that guy. I had an interview with him and he was perfectly fine. The students don’t dislike him.” The president of the board of education told us, “In the board’s view, Larry Walker is a saint. He’s largely responsible for the school having as few problems as it does.”

Commendably, the board has resisted the temptation to add its own voice to the outcry. Even without it, there have been “innumerable phone calls,” as Gretchen Reynolds told us, some complimentary and many not, and a whiff of hysteria. Whatever the actual state of racial relations at the high school, the letters by Averbach and Gevinson make it sound like everyone’s walking on eggs. Gevinson writes like a man beside himself.

In his letter he identifies himself as faculty sponsor of the student organization SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism), founded at about the time S.P.E.W. first appeared and numbering at least three S.P.E.W. contributors among its members. Presumably, he has some understanding of and sympathy for these students.

Yet he belittles S.P.E.W. throughout his screed, and ends it with a sneer:

“If Chicago would act on my suggestion that Santow be fired, he need not fret. There is an alternative for a reporter who seems never to have glanced at a code of journalistic ethics. I understand that they’re still looking for contributors for the next issue of SPEW.”

Goodness! “I don’t mean to be hostile to the kids,” Gevinson told us. “I work with these kids. I do like them.”

Santow wrote that frustration and anxiety were palpable at Oak Park High. They sure are now.

Hard Times

We saw a billboard that said, “Tonight, go home to the Channel 2 News,” so that’s what we did. Bro’ Bill came steaming out to hug us, his big, round, quivering face smiling so hard he looked close to tears. We had the feeling Bro’ Bill was kind of starved for company.

“Come on in, boy,” he sputtered, dragging us along. “Have some apple pie. Fried chicken’s in the Frigidaire. Anything you see you’re welcome to. Gosh, we’re glad you’re back.”

You’ve aged, Bro’ Bill, we told him.

“No boy, if anything I’m younger,” he replied with that certitudinous air that was one of the reasons we’d left. “I’m spry, I’ve exchanged mere smartness for wisdom, and I’ve never been so proud of what I’m doing!”

Still raising corn? we asked.

“Corn, rye, flax. Whatever grows,” he said. “I’ve been messing with a lot of newfangled fertilizers.”

Where’s the Old Lady? we said. For we’d noticed right away that the Old Lady was gone. That high-pitched, needling voice of hers no longer cut through the country air. Instead, there was this slip of a thing half Bro’ Bill’s age and they couldn’t take their eyes off each other.

Bro’ Bill bit his lip. “That’s why I wanted you to come out here, boy. So you could see for yourself how things have changed. Please don’t call me disloyal, but the truth is I love this place now as much as I’ve ever loved it in my life and I want you to meet my gal Linda who loves it as much as I do and who’s chosen to love it with me so this place that means so much to all of us’ll always be a special place anytime you want to visit.”

“What happened to the Old Lady?” we said.

“I know she was special to you,” Bro’ Bill stumbled on. “But you grew up and went away, didn’t you? And when it was just me and her she started driving me crazy with her nagging. To tell the truth, a lot of the farmhands swear it’s ’cause the Old Lady was such a ranting scold that nobody ever came by anymore.”

“Hi,” said Bro’ Bill’s gal Linda with stars in her eyes. “Raising a lot of crops with Bro’ Bill is hard work but I really love it and it makes me happier and prouder than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life. And I just hope you’ll stay here long enough to share our joy at the wonderful life we’re leading in this house that is filled with pride and love.”

We told Bro’ Bill we wanted a drink. We walked down Old Applegate Road into town. The bar was almost empty, just a couple of idlers at one table jabbering about the usual. Sports. The weather.

“Are you OK, Bro’ Bill?” we asked him anxiously.

He stared down into his drink. We had the feeling he was about to burst.

“You’ve seen some lean years out here,” we ventured.

He didn’t deny it.

“Bank owns everything, doesn’t it?” we said.

He didn’t deny this either.

“It was the bank took the Old Lady!” we cried.

He looked away in shame.

“And you’re next!” we blurted, the full horror of his situation suddenly clear. “If things don’t pick up fast they’ll come and take you, too!”

Bro’ Bill nodded miserably.

“It’s all up to the flax,” he whimpered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alice Q. Hargrave.