“Whoa!” I exclaimed. “I can’t let you enter class wearing that.”
“Why not?” (A frequent question heard by teachers these days.)
“You know why not; I don’t need to tell you.”
Uncharacteristically, Theo stood speechless for several seconds. His right hand held his textbook to his hip. His left hand he threw into the air, feigning puzzlement. Confident that I had rested my case, I said nothing.
“But … what about freedom of expression?”
Easy question, but as soon as the words escaped his lips and before I could answer, a priceless moment occurred: the principal walked by.
“Dr. Northcutt, would you render a judgment on Theo’s shirt?” I knew what Carla Northcutt’s answer would be. A seasoned school administrator, she knew Theo well. Her judgment was rendered in no time flat.
“You get to the boys’ restroom and turn that shirt inside out right now.”
“But what about freedom of expression?”
Ignoring Theo’s question, Northcutt turned to me and asked if I would step inside my classroom and get her a rubber band. After I handed her the rubber band, she held it up before Theo and began to stretch it. She asked Theo if he knew what rubber bands were for, but by now he was red-faced and angry and wouldn’t answer. Carla continued anyhow.
“They’re made for stretching, but see what happens when I stretch it too far?” At this point she stretched the rubber band until it broke. Being quite intelligent, Theo got her point about stretching freedom to the breaking point. He began to submit, even nodding his head affirmatively.
Carla Northcutt knew me as well as I knew her. Years before at Wheeler High School I had been the English Department Chairman, and she was one of the department’s finest and most creative teachers. While I remained in the classroom, she entered administration.
Now she was my principal. I wasn’t surprised when she paraphrased for Theo the famous Justice Holmes quote: “Freedom of speech doesn’t give one the right to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire.” She also added the old standard, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.” Carla knew that it was OK with me to end the episode by saying, “Theo, Mr. Hines would not have allowed you to enter the room if your shirt had said, ‘Atheism is stupid.’”
Not an out-and-out rebel, but just a mischievous teen who enjoyed testing limits, Theo left the scene and returned a few minutes later with his shirt turned inside out.
Several years later he attended a multi-class reunion. We had fun recalling the incident. When I asked him if, when he was a high school senior, he knew that his name meant God, he replied, “Of course I did. I wasn’t an atheist, either. You and Dr. Northcutt should have kicked my rear end.”
Dr. Carla Northcutt, who passed away on Jan. 4, knew how to kick a student’s rear end, but nine times out of 10 she did so instructively — and effectively — as with Theo. The first female high school principal in Cobb County, Carla found her niche at Oakwood. Oakwood was an open-campus high school which was the refuge and salvation of many Cobb teens who needed something other than the structured, standard high school.
When Carla first asked me if I would consider teaching at Oakwood, I told her I was far too traditional and much too expository to teach at an alternative high school. To my surprise, she replied, “Tradition and expository teaching are needed at alternative schools.” Having observed and even evaluated her when I was her chairman, I knew that her creativity and effectiveness went far beyond my own abilities. I was sure I didn’t fit.
Even so, for 11 years I taught at Oakwood up to retirement. Carla and I had a few minor disagreements, but she treated faculty members as she did Theo, with respect and reasonableness. Like her deceased husband Ben, who was Cobb Schools’ security chief for many years, Carla was an example for everyone who wishes to be a servant.
A devout Christian, Carla never hesitated to tell students what she believed was right or wrong. Although Oakwood was recently closed, the school bore her mark to the end. Our county is all the better for it.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.