Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Clifton Letter May 1972

There is a defining event for our family that we all still remember with great pride.

It took place in 1972. I was 15 years old and in Grade 10. My best friend, Tim Buell and I started a school newspaper in response to a paper called ‘Manifesto’ that was being circulated secretly throughout the school. ‘Manifesto’ was a way for a few students to express their outrage about the way the principal was doing his job. Unfortunately the people writing it had gone down to the point of name calling instead of just reporting the facts So Tim and I decided we would research the allegations expressed by Manifesto and fill in the blanks. We called our paper ‘OPTIMUM’.

We invited a teacher; Roy Clifton to be our adviser for the Paper.

Roy Clifton was the school’s Drama teacher and the librarian for Richmond Hill High School. He took me under his wing and I looked up to him as a father figure. He was a tall lanky man with a long angular face, dark piercing eyes and slicked back hair. He reminded me of the magpies in the Heckle and Jeckel cartoons. Clifton was a Quaker and so became a conscientious objector in the 2nd world War which forced him to give up his right to practice law. He had a distinct British accent and spoke much like the characters in The Importance of Being Ernest (which happened to be a play he produced several times at the school). I liked him a lot but he tended to treat me with a condescending tone. He would cock his head and begin: “Now Stephen…” He also insisted my name should be spelled with a ‘ph’ rather than a ‘v’.

As a reporter, I interviewed the Principal of our school; George Domina. Mr Domina had a brush cut and an abbreviated mustache that earned him the nick name (along with his administration style) of ‘Adolf Hitler’.

When I interviewed him we would play cat and mouse on various issues until after about thirty minutes (as prearranged I suspect) his secretary would come in and tell him he had some meeting to attend and I would be asked to leave.

One issue that came from ‘Manifesto’ was the idea of a student smoking area. Mr. Domina had vetoed the request out of hand. I asked him why he didn’t allow the Student Council to make the decision themselves. He said he wanted to but it was up to the Superintendant of Schools and out of his hands. So I went to the superintendent, sat in his office and asked him directly. He looked at me confused and said “No, I had nothing to do with that decision. It was up to the Principal to deal with.” After he said this he looked worried as if he had betrayed a confidence. “Does Mr. Domina know you came here to talk with me?” “I don’t know. I’m just here to confirm the facts. Why? Do I need his permission to see you?” He didn’t answer.

The next day I was in class when a knock came on the door. I was ushered out to the hallway where Mr. Domina was waiting.

“Who said you could go to the Superintendant’s office?”

I just looked at him with a puzzled expression on my face.

This made him very angry. “I don’t want you doing anything with this Steven. This is a dead issue. Besides, your grades have been slipping a bit. It would be bad for you if this paper interfered with your studies.”

It felt like a scene from a Mafia movie. “Accidents happen Steve… It would be a shame if an ‘accident’ happened to you…”

“So that will be the end of this right?”

I refused to give him an answer but his attempt to intimidate me got me moving on the story.

Here’s the article I wrote:


Wasn’t the Student Council formed to represent the student body? Yet it could disappear tomorrow and who would miss it? It has been allowed to decide science club finances but that’s about all, and they want to achieve more.

Students continue to be ruled by their administrators alone, especially the principal. He is responsible for what happens to the students at school. Perhaps this responsibility is too great for one man.

At last week’s student-staff liaison committee meeting, Mr. Domina admitted he had enormous responsibilities. Why doesn’t he lessen his load? Surely some students with the right to make some important decisions should be a part of the administration. If they cannot make a decision, surely they could be consulted before a decision is made. The Student council is ready for such responsibilities.

Recently the Council formed a committee to develop the idea of a recreation area with smoking privileges. The committee went into commendable detail, but when they approached Mr. Domina about it, he bluntly rejected the whole idea.

Last summer, the administration decided upon an exam form. Who heard about it last? The students. And it was too late to change it by the time the students heard about it.

Student expulsion is another important matter. Should a principal have the power to decide a person’s whole future?

This year we proved that we wanted a say in the administration. The dress regulation change came about through the work of students who cared enough to do something about it. A high level of responsibility was shown in this instance. We got results and change, and the burden on the principal was lightened.

History is supposedly a study of the parallel between past and present life. We view ancient mistakes partly for the benefit of our lives. The Board of Education—or whatever group responsible- has perhaps ignored history and traditions of democracy, instead giving absolute power to one man; the principal.

Mr. Domina: you tell us often enough that we are responsible people. Show us you believe it.

Steven Tennant

As a courtesy, I brought my article to George Domina to read before I published it. I stood in his office while he read it. When he finished he ripped it up and threw it in the garbage right in front of me. He told me it was not going to be published.

I was shaking with anger when I went back to my newspaper staff and told them what had just happened.

The immediate response from the staff was “We better do what he says. We don’t want him to shut us down” I couldn’t believe my ears. “He HAS shut us down! Don’t you see that?”

I resigned on the spot and decided to run for School President and make my case for freedom of speech.

It was very tough taking the Principal on because I hate confrontation. But I couldn’t stomach the thought of letting this bully get away with what he’d done.

I decided to run for School President so that I could speak out about what I had seen. On election day, I was the last to speak. I hadn’t slept at all the night before and I had a tough time concentrating. I told the 500 people in the auditorium that I didn’t think it was right for a principal to rip up an article just because he didn’t want it published. I said that as school President I would fight for the students to have their own voice in their decisions. I suggested a plan in which students would put the money for student activities in a separate place than in the School’s account so that we could have control of our own funds. My voice was monotone and my speech wasn’t very good and at the end I got very little applause and many people thought I should never have been allowed to speak.

In the halls I was confronted with some students who threatened to beat me up for saying the things I did about the Principal. In class that day, my French teacher took some time to discuss the election. She asked me if I seriously expected to win the election. I answered truthfully: “No.” I regretted giving that answer because I think it gave people an excuse to give up on me and vote for the other guy.

That was a very tough day for me, but there was one incident that made it all worthwhile. I had a couple of Grade 13 students come stop me in the hall. One of them looked me in the eye and said: “Thank you for having the courage to speak out for us.” Then they both reached out and shook my hand. That incident still brings tears to my eyes as I write this.

My co-editor, Tim Buell; was one of the people counting the ballots and told me later that I received only 27 votes out of the 600 who voted. I was actually relieved that it was over. I had done the right thing and the student body had let me know they weren’t interested in the truth. They didn’t care if the Principal was a liar and a despot. They wanted things to stay the way they were.

Roy Clifton approached me the day after the election with a letter in his hand. He spoke in a condescending tone as if to a third grader. He said: “Stephen, I thought it important to convey to you some thoughts regarding your actions. I have written my thoughts down for you to read. Now please sit down here and read what I have written to you. Please return it to me in a few minutes when you have read it. He handed it to me with a wry smile. I sat down in a stunned silence and began reading his letter.

This is what he wrote:

Written at the community of which we are both members

Sunday May 7 1972

Dear Stephen:

My first impulse is to sympathize with your on your not being elected as President. And I do. You do get your mind set on things, and take failure hard. I remind you though that the Bhagavad Gita advised us (they are Krishna’s words) to be “Even-minded in success and failure”; and it is a good way to live

My second impulse is to wonder how so intelligent a person as you could not have predicted your own defeat. Much of your speech was devoted to outlining a quite impractical way of setting up a student council bank account not subject to the principal’s signature, by giving a receipt to each student who paid his $2.50 and giving him back the money to pay into an outside bank account. No auditor in Canada would have certified the Council’s books after a comparison of the receipts given, with the funds in the treasury. And even such a perfectionist as myself would not claim that the sufficiently large number of students having received both a receipt and the money too would go out and re-deposit the money in an outside bank account

But it was not the impracticality of the scheme that defeated you: it was that all this fuss was shown to be quite unnecessary. A student asked you “Has Mr. Domina ever refused to sign a cheque?” Don Capotosto, not you, answered that in the three years of which he had knowledge, Mr. Domina had never refused to sign a cheque. At that moment I knew you were defeated. It was clear to the audience that you had an obsession against the abstraction which is labeled “the administration”, not based on a proven fact, but on some personal irrational prejudice of your own

Now, I have never before written a letter to a defeated candidate, but I write to you because I feel you are worth writing to. I have respect for your sincerity and hard work in everything we have worked together on. And I feel that I must set down on paper (writing is a more exact medium than speech) what I feel would make these excellent qualities more productive

You may remember my speaking to you about the self-fulfilling prophecy, this is, that the attitude or expectation with which you approach a person may condition his response. If you expect opposition, that attitude or expectation with which you approach a person may condition his response. If you expect opposition, that attitude itself will communicate itself, and provoke it; and of course the contrary is true

The second matter I would suggest that you give some attention to, is that what you ask for is in the interest of the whole community—which includes (in the school) principal, teachers, and n some issues, parents, as well as the students—not just something which may appear to be in the interest of a section of that community

You will remember that the first two matters agitated for in OPTIMUM were a smoking area, and a reduction in the exemption mark. I felt myself that a smoking area would tend to lead non-smokers into smoking, and that in any case no community, worthy of the name of educational, could do anything to encourage smoking, in the light of what was know of its harmful effects. There is also a legitimate difference of opinion as to the effect of any exemption mark on the effort and achievement of a student. Immediate comfort may not be a long-term benefit; and if students do not always make decisions in the light of their long-term advantage, it is certainly the responsibility of teachers to do so

On the other hand, I have at various times asked Mr. Domina’s approval for a number of things, and so far as the funds allotted to the school permitted he has never turned them down: equipment for the stage, a Japanese garden, a paper-recycling drive, trees for the front of the school. There was no doubt in either of our minds that these would benefit all the elements that made up our community, and in some cases the wider community outside the school. If you had asked for these things, I am sure you would have received the same answer

The fact is that you didn’t. The practice that you are following is the Communist-Trytskyist practice, and this practice is not to seek common ground with the supposed opposition, to search for matters on which administration and students, for example, can both come together, but to deliberately choose things that its proponents are aware that the administration cannot, for one reason or another, accede to. This enables them to present a picture of arbitrary use of authority, despotic decisions, oppression of the masses by the establishment, and so on, with the purpose of arousing the masses against all government, with the ultimate aim of course of their becoming the government themselves. There is no promise that when they are in power that they be one whit better. History tends to show that nearly all revolutionary governments have been quite as ruthless against their opponents as their predecessors—often more so, since they are masters themselves of undermining any governmental authority, and know that it is the reasonableness of governments, and not their ruthlessness that makes them more vulnerable

Paradoxically enough, this Trotskyist technique of impracticable demands, one–sided demands “confrontation” to give it its current name, stiffens the resistance of the opposition, whereas allowing proper weight to your opponent’s position, giving him credit for all you can, assuming the best possible motives, saving your opponent’s face whenever you can, instead of humiliating him, and above all, keeping quiet, and letting him talk himself into agreeing with you, are in accordance with the principles of Zen, and end in harmony between the initially opposed viewpoints, instead of firming and intensifying each side’s resolution not to yield, and producing deadlock

R.R. Marrett, the famous anthropologist remarked once that ‘true progress is progress in charity.” The Trotskyist “confrontation” generates more social friction, hatred, and suffering that can be justified by the small amount of change it leads to. Even the most arguable exception to this statement, the Russian revolution, can be debated. If the world is to be improved, the techniques of violence, (and your attitude is essentially a violent one) must be supplanted by one based on well-wishing, not hatred, not forcing but winning, seeking and creating solidarity or community of interest between all persons concerned with a situation. Twice I have had to (as a president) take action against one or two persons who were trying to divert the activity and funds of two different organizations away from the purpose for which it was sit up. I found this most unpleasant. In each case I had to satisfy myself that I was acting in the interest of the community as a whole, and then I had to do it with the least possible amount of personal emotional involvement

This is the Quaker view, and it is mine

Yours sincerely


When I finished reading the letter, Mr. Clifton put his hand out to take the letter back but I told him in a very calm tone that I wanted to take it home and read it overnight and then we could talk about it the next day. I was shaking with anger inside but I did my best to show nothing. He had a worried expression on his face as he just stood there for a few seconds looking at me. When he saw that I was not prepared to give the letter back to him, he gave me a nod as if I was a naughty school boy and withdrew.

When I got home I handed the letter to my parents to read. My Mom wanted to go over to his house and punch out his lights or at least phone him and give him a piece of her mind. My Dad was just as angry but he said he wanted to spend some time with the letter before we did anything about it. He headed straight for his study and closed the door. He was in there for three straight hours pounding (and I mean pounding!) on his typewriter. When he emerged he looked very calm and handed me the ten pages he had written. “I don’t expect you to do anything with this Steve. I just had to get my emotions out about this guy.”

I should mention that my dad was Hal Tennant. Hal was a professional writer, journalist and editor for such publications as Maclean’s Magazine.

Here’s what he wrote.

May 10, 1972

Mr. N. Roy Clifton

Richmond Hill High School,

Richmond Hill

Dear Mr. Clifton:

Since you have chosen to write a treatise of unsolicited advice to my son Steven (That’s Steven, Not Stephen, as you chose to address him) I feel free to address you on some of the same points you raised in your letter.

From the outset, please understand one thing: I am not springing to his defense. Steve is quite capable of many things, and one of those things is the capability to defend himself, when necessary.

Rather, I am taking to the typewriter in resentment of a number of things you said because I happen to believe that your attitude, which is deplorably shared by a great many people of your age and mine, is one of the fundamental things wrong with the world today.

Let’s take it off the top:

In your first paragraph, you offer some unsolicited sympathy to Steve in his defeat, on the smug assumption that he is taking this defeat badly and must therefore be offered solace from the wisdom of Krishna. Has it occurred to you that it might have been useful for you to have discovered, by discussion and the osmosis of empathy, just how Steve has been taking his defeat? I’ll save you that trouble now by assuring you that his is taking it as I believed he would – very well indeed. And he is doing so not because of, but in spite of, the reactions of some of his teachers.

It may seem appropriate to you to substantiate your first paragraph advice by quoting Krishna’s words, but apart from the dilatability of this little gem of wisdom, I question the usefulness of passing along little homilies, however wise, to people who have not yet had the experience to test their truth. If I may coin a homily of my own, in rebuttal, a thousand homilies are not worth a moment of true-life experience. The best a homily can do is to confirm and codify something one has already learned from experience.

Your second paragraph is insulting, presumptuous. “My second impulse,” you wrote, “is to wonder how so intelligent a person as you could not have predicted your won defeat.”

How did you arrive at the conclusion that Steve didn’t predict his own defeat? Did he ever tell you that he expected to win? He told me the opposite, both at the outset of the campaign and on the night before the election. He knew he had little or no chance of winning; yet he had things on his mind that he felt he should say to the student body, and he could see no reason why the prospect of defeat should deter him from saying those things. Have you never championed a cause that you knew, in your heart, was lost from the beginning?

Your analysis of his plan to rebate student finance reveals only a total misunderstanding of what he suggested as a means of giving the student body control of their own money, and I will not try to explain it to you here. Ask Steve about it sometime, and if you listen carefully you may just discover that his fault was not in the idea but in his presentation of it. Steve needs experience in public speaking, as he found out – the hard way.

Your argument centered on the question, “Has Mr. Domina ever refused to sign a cheque?” strikes me as vacuous as the observations made in defense of any tyrannical ruler. (“Certainly the king has the power to behead his subjects, but after all he hasn’t beheaded anyone for years – so what’s the problem.”) Which doesn’t go anywhere toward explaining why a principal, whoever he may be, should have the power to control students’ money, least of all money they pay for what is presumably their own extracurricular enjoyment and benefit.

Steve’s references to “the administration” were not, as you suggest, evident of some obsession of his over an abstraction; Steve is obsessed, I’ll grant you that, but not over” the administration”. He is obsessed with the simple idea that a principal and his administration should be willing to allow freedom of expression and to tolerate the dissent that is the very foundation of the democratic process. As long as he encounters any authority that stifles dissent, Steve will likely retain his obsession. What is it that makes “the administration” -- the principal – George Domina – fear free discussion and advocacy of policies other than those he has already decreed?

And if it is a “proven fact” you need in order to be convinced that Steve’s “obsession” is justified, why not ask him to document his case, from his own personal experiences? Then – but only ten – should you feel free to judge his attitude as one of “some personal irrational prejudice of your own.”

It is commendable that you have taken the trouble to set down on paper some of your thoughts about how Steve can make his “excellent” qualities more productive. It is a pity, I think, that you judge the best method to be a written lecture on his recent mistakes and shortcomings. I would have thought (though I admit to being no savant on such matters) that a little genuine, morale-building support might have accomplished a little more in this respect.

I commend you on your observation about the self-fulfilling prophesy; I am sure Steve’s own belief that he would be defeated did help ensure his defeat at the polls. But can you think of a more telling and worthwhile way for anyone to learn the truth than to go through the experience he did? Do you really believe that advice from the sidelines, before fact, would have taught him what he has learned now?

Your suggestion that Steve should ask only for those things that are “in the interest of the whole community” strikes me as shallow indeed. Surely the expectation that a minority be allowed to follow its own bent, provided it doesn’t interfere with the rights of the majority, is not an unfair appeal. I will not insult your intelligence or your innate sense of fairness by siting examples of fair-play issues in which only a minority of the community would benefit and yet which are paramount in importance because of any violation of minority rights is a threat to the individual choices we should all enjoy, by right.

I am intrigued by your recitation of the worthwhile project you have successfully broached to Mr. Domina, for I think that the manner in which they were approved is symptomatic of what ails the present system of student finances. Here we have a series of projects, all unquestionably worthwhile, being broached by a teacher and approved by a principal. None of them I gather was initiated by the students. The fact that your projects were (I understand) endorsed by the student council is surely more of a tribute to your salesmanship (I would not be so bold as to say “pressuring”) than to your understanding that the council might actually learn something useful if it were to initiate its own money-spending projects, even at the risk of embarking on foolish and regrettable ventures. I am sure it must give you enormous satisfaction to have engaged in such good works with other people’s money. I expect a good many students will go out into the world believing that “Teacher knows best.” Which doesn’t exactly equip them to cope with the world as I know it.

In regard to the remarks which you saw fit to add to this passage, I would only say that I am saddened to see you labeling anyone’s honest expression of dissent as “Communist-Trotskyist”. Has it occurred to you that your example might invite some students to indulge in similar name-calling (“Hitlerite administration, fascist administration”)? Perhaps it is your wish to encourage this brand of glib labeling, but surely we can set a better example than that.

And, incidentally, wouldn’t you agree that if one is inclined to attack a school’s policies, it is far more gentlemanly to do so in a impersonal way – a way in which, to use your own words, is conducive to “saving your opponent’s face whenever you can instead of humiliating him”? Is that not sufficient motive to direct one’s criticisms against “the administration” (as a power) rather than against “the principal” or “Mr. Domina” (as a person)?

I am glad you agree with R.R.M. Arrett that “true progress is progress in charity.” It would be encouraging to see “the administration: striving toward such progress. How much “charity” is embodied in an administration that insists on controlling student money which could, without harm to the operation of the basic educational system, be controlled by the elected representatives of the students? What charity is there in the actions of a principal who tears up a newspaper article with which he does not agree, to prevent its being read by the student body? What charity do you find in a principal who threatens to remove a student candidate’s name from a ballot because of a silly, impulsive action on that student’s part? Perhaps you consider it “charity” that the principal (okay – Mr. Domina) backed down and reinstated that student as a candidate when he was faced with a wholesale revolt on the part of all candidates. Charity comes easy, I would say, when one’s back is against the wall.

I am intrigued, perhaps most of all, by your interpretations of Steve’s attitude as “essentially violent.” Let us pause now while we reflect on the “violence” of other, more widely recognized agitators:

Jesus, who not only defied the state and the customs of the day but took a whip and drove the money-changers out of the temple;

Washington, who harbored the dangerous and violent notion that people who pay taxes, ought to have some voice in their own government;

Martin Luther King, who made the tragic judgment that his cause was more important than his own life;

Gandhi, whose “violence” consisted of hunger strikes that embarrassed the British into concessions,

Martin Luther, who took the violent action of hammering his protest onto a church door.

If those examples fit your definition of “violence” let us have more “violence” and less apathy, timidity and conformity.

I congratulate you for your twice-proven ability to put down dissent (in certain unnamed organizations) “with the least possible amount of personal emotional involvement.” The same questionable attitude has been displayed by many illustrious figures of recent history. Eichman of Germany and Lieut. Calley of My Lai are among the examples that come to mind.

Such detachment (“in the interest of the community as a whole,” as you so capably express it) is something that some of us have never managed to achieve. Perhaps we just aren’t trying hard enough.

I suppose that if I were capable of dealing with your comments in a detached way I would have managed to separate my personal feelings about Steve from the broader principles involved. Having reread what I have written so far, I confess to absolute failure. However, the point of principle I had in mind when I began writing is still fixed clearly in my consciousness.

I do believe – and I never will believe – that there is any better teacher than experience. Steve went into that election knowing he would lose and I have congratulated him several times for his courage and his willingness to learn the hard way. I know he has made many mistakes and I sincerely believe he has learned a great deal from them. Even knowing the outcome as I do now, I would encourage him to do the same thing over again, if I felt he would learn even half as much again.

I find it hard to see that he could possibly learn from unctuous sermons from me or from smug, patronizing letters from any of his teachers. No, I’ll amend that. He has learned one thing; some people grow into middle age believing – on god knows what evidence – that a young person can somehow benefit from the 20-20 hindsight of his elders.

We’ll be lucky if Steve doesn’t conclude that anybody over 30 is dismally out of touch with what people his age thinks and desire in their zeal to make the community – and the world – a better place for us all.


Hal Tennant

After reading his response I had tears in my eyes and looked up at my dad and said: “I’m going to give this to him tomorrow. I had him sign it. Then I signed my name under his and mom signed it as well.

The next day I went straight to Roy Clifton’s office and handed the letter to him. “I decided my parents should read what you wrote”

He looked very perturbed. “I thought we agreed this was just between you and I Stephen.”

I just shrugged. “Oh well. You can KEEP this letter.”

We never spoke again.

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