Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Ramdiculous Feud: A Tale of Miscommunication, Drama, and Yellow Journalism at Angelo State University

Note: The following tale has been reconstructed from the newspapers, letters, and personal journal entries surrounding these events. Beyond that, this is how I remember it.


“Competition makes people better by pushing them to keep up with someone else. Get over the junior high jealous friend thing and man up, don’t just cry and moan because you have to actually be good now. Actually BE good. Spark that creativity and be original and entertaining; your peers and your competition will respect you more for it, and you won’t have to cry yourself to sleep at night anymore.”

–“Samuel Clemens,”
Ramdiculous Page, March 9, 2007
One evening about a month ago, during a Facebook chat with my friend Keith as we discussed his upcoming wedding, I came to a startling realization about an upcoming anniversary.

“Dude,” I typed. “March 7. Ten years since they fired me. A decade.”

“Damn,” said Keith.

I leaned back and whistled as I thought about it. It didn’t seem that long ago, but so much had happened in those ten years.

“That was one of the most important events of my life, to be honest,” I wrote.

“Why’s that?” he responded.

I paused, thinking about everything that had happened before and since March 7, 2007.

***

I first met Keith Greer-May at a summer job in 2006 at Foster Field. The ballpark is still there, now exclusively owned and used by Angelo State’s baseball team, but at the time, an independent professional team was housed there as well.

Keith was a ticket taker at the main gate. I was ostensibly an usher or something, but as time went on, I took on other tasks, including filling in for employees so that they could take quick dinner breaks before resuming their work.

That’s how Keith and I met – I filled in for him a couple of times at the gate, then stuck around to chat with him, and we hit it off fairly quickly. I remember thinking about how he initially reminded me of Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We had a few laughs that summer and remained friends through the end of the season.

Naturally, with him starting Angelo State that fall, and me returning as an undergraduate, we continued hanging out afterwards. In between classes, we’d hang out in the university center, making fun of the fact that the big screen television in the food court was always tuned to the Lifetime network for whatever reason.

One afternoon that fall, as I read the student newspaper, the Ram Page, I noticed an ad for the campus radio station, Ram Radio. It wasn’t a traditional over-the-air broadcast station, and to this day it still isn’t, but it was instead a streaming Internet station, meaning a potentially wider audience. And I personally knew the radio station’s staff adviser, Patricia H. Turner, who had once been my next-door neighbor when I was a kid and had later become one of my college journalism instructors.

“Dude,” I said. “Look at this.”

He looked.

“What do you think?” I said. “We could have a radio show on this station. Play some classic rock or something.”

“I don’t know much about rock music,” he said.

“Leave that to me,” I said, grinning. “I know classic rock, but I need someone to talk to, and the two of us’ll be great.”

“All right,” he said. “Let’s do this.”

Within the hour, we were in the journalism hall on the third floor of the library, talking to Ram Radio’s student manager about doing a two-hour “rock and talk” show on Thursday nights. She showed us some of the equipment in the broadcasting booth, including the soundboard, the microphones, and the playlist computer. She also showed us the adjacent recording booth, which was tied into the main booth’s soundboard, meaning we could record our shows as MP3 files if we wanted.

There was also a third microphone available, ostensibly for times where we might interview someone.

***

Ever since my acceptance at Angelo State in the fall of 2004, I had desperately wanted to become an integral part of the Ram Page student newspaper. In high school, I had been a humor columnist and a cartoonist, which is what I wanted to continue doing at the Ram Page.

By the time I arrived there, however, they already had a cartoonist on staff. I wasn’t impressed with his work, but I happily waited and did my own thing for a while, writing columns, submitting the occasional illustration, and developing a rapport with the rest of the staff. Eventually, by the fall of 2005, I kind of got my foot in the door by having a single-panel comic strip run in the Ram Page in the place of the paid cartoonist’s entries, and this continued for several weeks. The staff box was subsequently updated to include my name.

There was a problem, though: I wasn’t officially hired. And I felt that my major roadblock in that regard was the paper’s faculty adviser, Dr. Cathy Johnson.

It could have been because there was a clash of personalities between us, though I wasn't aware of it initially, as I had started off with professional respect for her. At the time, I was a kid who, despite being introverted and moderate, dressed in loud Hawaiian shirts, listened to classic rock, and openly endorsed humorist Kinky Friedman in Texas’ gubernatorial election. Johnson was, by my own gradual observation and opinion, a somewhat straitlaced older woman with a penchant for smiling big to disguise that she enjoyed being the biggest fish in the pond. I developed the opinion that, with Johnson at the helm, she could and would arbitrarily shoot down any decisions that the editor made, and I felt like she was a real “MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY” type of person.

For instance, a newspaper at another university in ASU’s division contacted our photo editor, and asked if they could use one of our photos of a football game, with full credit given to the photographer and newspaper. Our photo editor said yes, but Johnson said no, without explanation, and that was the end of it.

“She’s crazy,” said the photo editor.

One day in October 2005, Mark, the advertising manager on the Ram Page staff, left me alone in the office to finish working on my cartoon for that week’s edition, with my only instruction being to “lock the door on the way out.” Not wanting to work in complete silence, I went into the editor’s office and turned on the radio to listen to some classic rock.

While I worked, and while Black Sabbath was playing softly on the radio, Johnson strode into the office.

“Where’s Mark?” she said to me.

“He took off,” I said.

She looked at me for a moment with a blank expression, then walked straight out without another word. I thought the interaction was a bit odd, but I didn’t think anything more of it until a couple of weeks later, when I returned to the office to work on another cartoon.

My friend Amanda, who was also on staff, was sitting at a desk working.

“Hey Amanda,” I said.

“Hey Bryce,” she said, looking up from her work. “Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Dr. Johnson doesn’t want you in here by yourself anymore.”

I stared at her. “What?”

“Apparently, she walked in here a couple of weeks ago and saw you by yourself, and she just told the rest of us we can’t leave you in here alone,” said Amanda. “She told us to tell you.”

That Johnson didn’t talk to me directly about it really bothered me. I don’t consider myself a boat rocker, but I was genuinely curious about why I was no longer allowed. So I wrote Johnson an email:
At 09:36 PM 10/14/2005, Bryce J. Parsons wrote:
Dr. Johnson,

Someone on the Ram Page staff recently informed me of a rule that non-staff contributors are not allowed to work in the Ram Page offices without a Ram Page staff member present.

Is this rule true, and if so, why? I like to draw my weekly cartoon submissions on the light desk in there, and I usually can't get in to draw until later in the afternoon (due to class scheduling).

-Bryce Parsons
She responded four days later:

On Tue, 18 Oct 2005 13:10:41 -0500
Cathy Johnson wrote:

That is correct. Individuals who are not on the Ram Page staff are not allowed in the office without a staff member being present.

Why? I can't think of any settings in which a non-staff member is allowed alone in a facility. Examples: I can't be in the dean's office after hours, I can't be inside HEB after hours, and I can't even be in the Standard-Times after hours.
I was perplexed. In my mind, this made sense for everyday joes off the street, but not contributors listed in the staff box, and especially not ones that the entire staff knew and worked closely with on a daily basis. I wanted to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt by assuming that she didn’t read my message closely, but I also got the impression that she was deliberately insulting my intelligence. Somewhat flippantly, I wrote back:
At 06:05 PM 10/19/2005, Bryce J. Parsons wrote:
I can understand where you're coming from with each of the examples you have provided, but they seem to pertain to regular people. I have been given credit in the staff box since Issue 3 this semester, yet I still was required to leave when said staff member did.

So what is the policy for contributors such as myself?
She responded:
On Thu, 20 Oct 2005 08:32:05 -0500
Cathy Johnson wrote:

Volunteers are not allowed in the office alone.
It wasn’t unreasonable, but it seemed awfully petty and arbitrary to me. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, so I resolved then and there to get myself hired, and end that “volunteer” business. If I was getting paid, I reasoned, then I could be in the office without breaking any hitherto unknown rules, and Johnson would lose what was, in my opinion, bullying leverage.

I didn’t have to wait long. The week after the email exchange, I gave the Ram Page editor, Jenna, a look at my latest comic, which was about a trick-or-treating Santa Claus.

She read it and laughed.

“So,” she said. “I guess you'll start wanting to be paid for your cartoons, huh?”

“Yeah, I was just going to bring that up,” I said. “I’d like to be on staff.”

“Well, I'll talk to Dr. Johnson, and I should have all the paperwork for you next week,” she said, smiling.

“Fantastic!” I exclaimed. “Thanks!”

Well, it didn’t take Johnson came up with an excuse to keep me off staff, like I felt like she would. According to Jenna, who was playing the role of Johnson's messenger girl, there was some kind of trouble with a transfer of my previous community college hours to ASU from Howard College, or Johnson (conveniently) couldn't find them, or something. I had been under the impression that my Howard hours had transferred without a hitch, but stranger things had happened before, and me being naive, I wanted to give the university the benefit of the doubt.

But to twist the knife deeper, Johnson made sure to remind Jenna that I couldn't be in the office alone, something that Jenna relayed to me when she gave me the bad news.

“I don't think she likes me either,” said Jenna, shrugging.

My transfer credits, it later turned out, were perfectly fine. I tried to contact Johnson, but she didn’t respond. Later, after asking another staffer if this was how Johnson normally behaved, I learned that the students on staff had tried for years to oust her as newspaper adviser, but ASU’s only other journalism professor with a doctorate repeatedly refused the position.

The whole mess left me feeling jaded and uncomfortable, so I slowly eased out of submitting cartoons, and by the following spring, I had completely stopped submitting any content to the Ram Page, and their official cartoonist resumed his duties.

Every year, though, there is a staff turnover, where many contributors and editors change positions, or graduate and leave as Amanda and Jenna were doing. I wasn’t interested anymore, so I let the application period for the cartoonist job lapse. It just wouldn’t happen with Cathy Johnson there, I figured.

But on May 3, 2006, I got a Facebook message from the next year’s editor:
Hello. My name is Charlotte, I am the editor of the Ram Page for the next academic year. I was wondering if you would be interested in applying for the cartoonist position. Please contact me either by facebook or my cell phone number is [number]. Thank you very much!
Naturally, I was flattered that she’d thought of me, and I did set up a job interview, but I didn’t think I had a shadow of a chance with Johnson overseeing things. This fear intensified the next day during the job interview, which Johnson and Charlotte both conducted, and which I thought Johnson sort of ran herself instead of the actual editor of the paper.

However, four days later, to my elation, I was notified that I got the job. Two days after that, in my first official act as the Ram Page’s paid cartoonist, I pitched an episodic comic with recurring characters, called Dante Residential.

And not only could I be in the Ram Page office unattended from there on out, but I even got my own key.

***

Very rapidly over the fall of 2006, I built a playlist for my radio show with Keith. I had a lot of classic rock to contribute from my own collection, but I was also impressed with the songs already available in Ram Radio’s database.

We quickly settled into a comfortable routine. Every Thursday at 5:30 pm, we’d break into Ram Radio’s automated playlist with our own weird show, The Bryce & Keith Show, which consisted of classic rock interspersed with our own banter and routines. In reality, it was just two twenty-year-olds being jackasses for two hours, but we sure had a good time doing it, and Ram Radio didn’t care what we did.

During the show, I ran the soundboard and the playlist computer. Keith had a computer at his station, where he was able to log into AOL Instant Messenger and engage our tiny audience via instant messages.

On occasion, we’d even hook up the third microphone to interview guests. Usually it was a friend of his or mine, and at one point we had a girl regularly show up as a third wheel of sorts, but we had some really good guests that first semester.

We never had many listeners in the grand scheme of things. I think our peak was ten or so listeners during one show, which in Ram Radio terms was a ratings smash. It got to the point where the station manager insisted on recording our show and replaying it later in the week, so we started recording MP3s. More popular, though, was our Facebook page, which seemed to grow exponentially.

We were having fun. We felt famous.

***

There was virtually no overlap between my Ram Page job and my Ram Radio show, but every so often I’d pop into the Ram Page office during or after the show to say hello and chat with my comrades on the newspaper staff.

I liked the Ram Page staff a whole lot. One of my favorite things about working on a school newspaper is the camaraderie you develop when interacting with that range of personalities. Especially so with the Ram Page, because everyone had the same classes as everyone else. Aside from the business manager and the photo editor, pretty much everyone there was a Journalism major.

It wasn’t without detriment, though. Upon reflection, I feel that it became exclusively cliquish. We were so surrounded by our journalism sphere that we didn’t respond well to outside criticism. One such example was a Facebook group that rose to prominence during Jenna’s time at the helm, called “The Ram Page is Ram-diculous,” which disagreed with the Ram Page’s opinion pieces. It was a tiny group, all things considered, but the Ram Page staff took it as an affront, and a staffer wrote an angry editorial about it. The editorial had no impact other than quadrupling the group’s membership count.

Still, our camaraderie was good. The last week of school that fall, after I had been officially accepted as a part of the staff, we all went to Little Mexico, a local Tex-Mex joint, to eat food and have a few laughs. As my peers and I traded stories, it truly felt like I belonged.

At one point in late 2006, a staffer brought a couch into the office for the rest of the staff to use. The goal was for the staff to have some place other than the office chairs to sit and be comfortable, and they even took the official staff portrait with the couch in frame. However, the couch was nixed very quickly by the Communication, Drama, and Journalism department head, Dr. June Smith, who allegedly didn’t want Ram Page staffers having sex on the couch after hours. Johnson didn’t object, and though the staffers vehemently denied they’d ever do such a thing, the couch quietly vanished soon after.

Significantly, though, that fall was also the semester that the Ramdiculous Page came along, and things truly began to change.

***

From what I understand, Ramdiculous’ name was inspired by the Facebook group “The Ram Page is Ram-diculous,” but the association ended there. Two freshmen, Seth Chomout and Brian Wingert, were dissatisfied with the direction that the official school paper took, so struck out on their own and created their own weekly paper, enlisting the help of their friends Joel Randolph and James Kelly.

Their method for publishing was low-tech and rather ingenious. They composed their publication in Microsoft Publisher, used their unlimited printing privileges in the main computer lab to print a thousand copies, and spent a few hours on Wednesday stapling everything together. Thursday night, they snuck into each of the buildings on campus and left the papers on benches and on tables, where students could find them and read them.

The first edition of the Ramdiculous Page was dated Friday, October 13, 2006. The bottom of its front page featured a picture of a Ram Page on fire.

***

It didn’t take long for the Ramdiculous Page to generate buzz across campus, including the Communication, Drama, and Journalism department.

Most of the student body was genuinely curious about who was behind Ramdiculous. The paper didn’t use real names in its bylines – most of its writers used pseudonyms based on historical figures – so no one had any idea who to talk to. That is, aside from the retiring university president, who did some sleuthing and personally congratulated them on their initiative.

Most of the buzz from the Ram Page staff was negative, as expected. The consensus was that the very existence of this Johnny-come-lately underground rag was to criticize real journalism. After all, we were the real journalists! That being the case, a lot of the irritation came from the staff writers, but the majority came from the sports editor, a chap named Ben, who quickly developed such a venomous hatred of Ramdiculous that you would have thought that it had burned down his childhood home and roasted marshmallows on the embers.

My own opinion was initially influenced by my staff-mates’ opinions. I poured my heart and soul into Dante Residential each week, and people had told me that they enjoyed reading it, so why would someone else do something that undermined my efforts? And I think that’s how the rest of the staff felt.

But late in the semester, I picked up an issue just to see what the hype was about. And, you know, it wasn’t bad.

It wasn’t high-grade journalism, and its layout and copy editing left a lot to be desired, but it presented a dry sense of humor about campus life, and it was fun to read; it appealed to my Mad Magazine sensibilities. The articles were offbeat and funny, and the columns written by “Samuel Clemens” that ran on the paper’s front page revealed that they had a brilliantly clever writer among their numbers. The publication wasn’t a straight up mockery of the Ram Page, but rather a humorous equivalent, like the Harvard Lampoon to the Harvard Crimson.

In their last issue of the semester, Ramdiculous claimed that the university, the student government, and the Ram Page were shutting them down. No more would they publish their paper and make us laugh. Those statements generated a fresh buzz about the campus; I recall journalism students asking a journalism law professor if the university could even do that.

I picked up a copy to read and walked into the Ram Page office. Ben recoiled when he saw the paper in my hand.

“Don’t bring that blasphemy in here,” he said.

I laughed. It seemed like a funny statement at the time.

***

“Dude,” said Keith, reading the last Ramdiculous Page of the semester. “I didn’t think the university could get them in trouble for doing this.”

“I don’t think they really can, to be honest,” I said, shrugging. “Although Dr. Johnson probably threw a fit and tracked them down somehow.”

“Let’s email them and get them on the show,” he said, pointing at an email address that Ramdiculous had printed. “Imagine how many listeners we could get if we were the first ones to find out who they are and what happened to them. They could tell their side of the story.”

I agreed. If it would help The Bryce & Keith Show, then I was enthusiastic.

***

Keith and I didn’t hear from anyone at Ramdiculous right away. But as the Spring 2007 semester began, and as the first new issues appeared, it turned out that they were not going away, that it had been a prank on their readership. They continued publishing as usual.

But they eventually did contact Keith, and they were interested in appearing on our radio show. So that January, we hooked up the third microphone, met Brian for the first time, hit it off quickly, and started featuring him on the show. He added an extra wit to the program, and Keith and I got more comfortable with our roles as show hosts.

Ramdiculous responded to the extra publicity by adding some of their own. They mentioned us in a “Clemens” column, and they began advertising our show’s date and time. We easily had about 110 followers on Facebook by mid-February, which seemed like a real coup to us.

Ben wrote an anti-Ramdiculous editorial that ran in the Ram Page on February 9. Ramdiculous surged in popularity as a result, and a week later, they gleefully responded to Ben in kind, making no apologies for their publication, and explaining that they actually did respect the Ram Page and its staff, and only made their criticisms in good fun. They then mailed Ben approximately 40 copies of the issue.

***

The week after Valentine's Day 2007, I got an email from Johnson asking me to come see her in her office. It seemed ominous, especially since Johnson had more or less left me alone since I’d been hired; so before I went to see her, I asked Charlotte what it was about.

“I think it has to do with Ramdiculous and your radio show,” she replied.

Perplexed, I went into Johnson’s office. She asked me to sit down. She sat down in a chair catty corner to me.

“I wanted to start out by first showing concern about when you submit comics,” she said. “The week before Valentine's Day was our Valentine issue, but you submitted a Valentine comic the next week.”

“That was an error on my part,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that we were doing a Valentine issue the week before Valentine’s Day.”

“Well, can you see how getting behind would be a problem?” she said, squinting her eyes and giving a toothy smile. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I nodded.

“I also wanted to talk to you about your friendship with the Ramdiculous Page,” she said. “I know they advertise you, and I know that you’ve been interviewing them on Ram Radio.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I have concerns about your association with them,” she said. “The staff sees them as unprofessional and insulting, you know. I can’t have the Ram Page misrepresented.”

“I’m just getting their side of the story,” I said. “Trying to figure out what makes them tick.”

“Well, anyway,” said Johnson. “Ram Radio might also have a problem with you talking to Ramdiculous. It might be a good idea if you cut ties with them.”

I looked her in the eye. Maybe it was my naiveté, but it seemed like a tremendously odd suggestion, and it appeared that I needed to say something to placate her.

“I’ll talk to my co-host, and I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

***

Keith and I talked about it between ourselves. We talked to Brian, Seth, and Joel about it. I talked one-on-one with Charlotte about it, and invited her onto the show, but she never took me up on that offer.

On Thursday, February 22, with no guests appearing on our show that week, Keith and I opened the show and spoke about the situation for approximately eight minutes, discussing our own conclusions and deciding that the proper thing to do would be to uphold freedom of expression. Therefore, we offered the third mic to anyone who wanted to appear.

We did this because we felt like no one on campus would care if a cartoonist played host to Ramdiculous, especially since no one else was bothering to figure out why they were doing what they did. We also felt like Ram Radio’s overseers couldn’t care less about a Ram Page gripe, especially since Brian had never even mentioned the Ram Page negatively while on our show. The “feud” between the papers was so petty that I honestly didn’t feel like any repercussions would present themselves; at worst, Johnson could flat-out tell me to stop, and she could present clear consequences instead of merely making suggestions.

But to play it safe, I cut the eight minute conversation out of the recording of our show so that it wouldn’t appear in reruns, and saved it as its own separate file, which I figured no one would listen to. Ramdiculous, meanwhile, censored my name in their ad for our show.

Nothing happened the week after.

The following show, on Thursday, March 1, we had Brian appear once more, this time billed as a friend of the show. We also had on a friend of mine named Jeseika, who I recall talked about her sorority, and engaged a listener on AIM while we were live on the air. The show wasn’t one of our better efforts, but we had fun with it.

The next day’s Ramdiculous featured a “Clemens” column claiming that someone was trying to keep them off of Ram Radio, and that issues of Ramdiculous that had been left in the journalism hall, library, and the nearby university center were all found in those buildings’ trash cans. The writer didn’t name names, but he claimed that even the janitors loved reading their paper, and took it to mean that there had to be a concerted effort by someone to stifle their point of view on campus.

That same week, Ben drew a picture of a monkey urinating on the Ramdiculous logo, and proudly hung it up in the Ram Page office for all to see.

***

On Monday, March 5, 2007, I began work on that week’s Dante Residential comic. I submitted it the following day, March 6, along with a humor column about pop culture, and the editors happily bantered with me after I submitted both pieces.

“This is such a Ramdiculous article,” joked Keith, as he read the final draft of my column in the computer lab. “They’re gonna think you’re one of them.”

***

Tuesday evening, March 6, the Communications, Drama, and Journalism department secretary sent an “urgent” email to my personal email address, stating that I was to attend a meeting with the department head at 2 pm on Wednesday in the department conference room. The email was marked with a read receipt.

I didn’t see the email.

***
“Pure speculation. It has been said that things in life happen for a reason, and to some extent, this has been proven true by many a brilliant mind. However, what of the things that are deemed atrocities or heinous by society? Do these things happen for a reason? Are they predestined to occur no matter what, or are the ‘bad’ things in life a product of callous, shallow, self-serving, egomaniacal hypocrites who would have us believe that what they have done is not in any way to serve themselves, but to better the environment in which they live as a whole?”

–“Samuel Clemens,” Ramdiculous Page, March 2, 2007
***

Wednesday, March 7, 2007. The Wednesday before Spring Break. What timing.

The choices we make will lead us to certain places, to certain situations. Events can converge and lead up to a single incident, and sometimes all it takes is a single incident to change your direction entirely. I liken it to an hourglass shape; there are many things that taper towards a single point, then there is everything that happens afterward, as more and more changes branch off from that point.

This day was a single point like that.

That morning, I went to Pat Turner’s visual media class like I always did on Wednesdays. Without a word, and without looking at me, she placed a printout of the secretary’s email on my desk.

My anxiety levels began to rise as I read it.

After class, a classmate told me that if Smith was involved, then it definitely couldn’t be good. Cautiously, I walked over and stuck my head into the Ram Page office to see if they had heard anything. Charlotte was in there reading over some papers.

“Do you know why I’m being called into a meeting with Dr. Smith?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” she said, glaring at me uncomfortably.

Quickly, I went down the hall to the computer lab, messaged Keith on Facebook, and asked him to meet me in the journalism department. Something was going to happen at 2 pm. Something potentially bad.

Keith got a ride up to the campus and joined me in the department. We waited in the hallway for 2 pm to draw nearer, speculating on what would occur at that time.

At 2 pm on the nose, Johnson and Charlotte showed up with the department head and Turner in tow. They waved me into the conference room, as Keith waited on a bench a short way down the hall.

Smith sat at the head of the table. Turner sat to her immediate left, Johnson sat at her immediate right, and Charlotte sat at Johnson’s right.

I was told to sit at the other side of the table, opposite the group. It was as if a line had been drawn in the middle, and I was on the other side.

“This meeting,” Smith began, as she peered over her glasses at me, “Is about you being a part of the Ramdiculous.”

That was a strange statement, and it took me a second to process it.

“But I’m not one of them,” I said. “I’ve only interviewed one of their writers on my radio show.”

“We found a recording of your show where you say you’re one of them,” said Smith, frowning.

“I never said anything like that,” I said. “I didn’t even know who they were before this semester.”

“You did spend approximately eight minutes talking about a conversation I had with you,” said Johnson, smiling. “Millions of people all over the world may have heard it – people in China could have heard it – and that’s besides the point, because I told you to cut ties with Ramdiculous. You saying ‘I’ll see what I can do’ doesn’t mean ‘I won't do anything about it.’”

“My co-host and I felt that it was a free speech issue,” I said. “The third microphone on our show is meant for anyone who wants to talk. Last week we interviewed a girl about her sorority. I talked with Charlotte, and we wanted to interview someone from the Ram Page, too. ”

Charlotte didn’t say a word, and didn’t make eye contact. Turner piped up, as if on cue.

“You deviated from format,” she said, lacing her fingers. “When you got your show, we didn’t say that you were allowed to interview anyone.”

“Fact is, you had one of the Ramdiculous on your show last week,” said Smith. “And in light of your insubordination, you are fired from the Ram Page and banned from Ram Radio.”

I think I let slip a barely audible “Oh, God.” I was absolutely shocked.

Smith rose from her chair, marched around the table, and handed me a dismissal paper to sign. I stared at it for a second.

“For the record,” I finally said, signing the form, “I want it to show that I quit under protest.”

“It’s all the same paperwork,” Smith said, standing watch over me. “And I’ll need your key, too.”

I removed the office key from my keychain and placed it on the table. One thought lingered on my mind.

“Do I have the rights to my comic strip?” I asked.

Smith smirked. “Your comic strip is property of Angelo State University, so no you do not.”

Once the formalities were finished, I was dismissed, and I walked out of the meeting absolutely stunned. I walked over to where Keith stood waiting.

“They fired me,” I said. “They fired me and kicked me off of Ram Radio, and said I didn’t own my comic strip.”

Down the hall, Johnson and the others filed out of the conference room. Keith saw Johnson’s and Smith’s smiles, and snapped.

“You can’t do this!” he yelled. “You’ll regret this!”

I had to hold him back. The man was absolutely livid.

***

The rest of that afternoon was a blur. Keith wrote to Ramdiculous to tell them what had happened. I called everyone I knew and told them what had just gone down, and I found another Ram Page editor and begged for my column and comic not to run in that Friday’s edition.

And I went home, found some quiet solitude, and I broke down. Hard.

My parents were so incensed that they both drove straight to the campus and stormed into the department head’s office; my father knew Smith professionally and felt like he could talk to her as an equal. However, Smith wasn’t in her office, so they made an appointment with the secretary to see Smith the next day. As they left down the building’s south stairwell, they encountered Smith coming up the stairs.

“You know why we’re here, June,” said Dad, looking her square in the eye. “And we’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”

That night, Charlotte emailed me what I think was an attempted mea culpa on her part. She said that Johnson had told her that I did indeed retain future rights to Dante Residential and its characters, but not to the individual Dante Residential comic strips that the Ram Page had already run.

I didn’t reply, but upon reading that statement, I whispered a certain rude synonym for “cow droppings.” Despite what had just happened, I realized that Angelo State University wasn’t going to fight me over the rights to previously-run comic strips, and to this day they still haven’t.

***

The meeting with Smith on Thursday, March 8 went absolutely nowhere. She sneered at us and said that she not only didn’t investigate the issue whatsoever, but could blackball me without investigating the issue, because she had carte blanche to do whatever she felt like doing in the department as the department head. My mother was stunned to tears; my father angrily fought back by telling her how embarrassed he was for Smith, that she’d abuse her position in such a way.

The following day, Friday the 9th, my parents and I met with Smith’s superior. Dr. Coers was a lot more reasonable, and even mentioned that he enjoyed reading Ramdiculous, and stated his opinion that it was nowhere near as offensive as other parody newspapers he’d seen. He even stepped into the hallway and grabbed a few of that morning’s Ram Pages and Ramdiculous Pages for the four of us to look at.

We read the Ram Page. They still ran my comic and column as if nothing was wrong. I was utterly disgusted.

Ramdiculous, on the other hand, had been emboldened rather than intimidated. The “Clemens” column denounced Ben’s monkey cartoon as puerile, a movie review column and a comic each satirized my dismissals, and there was an article by Keith telling the story of what had happened on Wednesday. The whole thing won me over.

That afternoon, Keith received an email from Pat Turner telling him in no uncertain terms that he was also no longer allowed on Ram Radio. As I understand, what followed was a pretty acrimonious back-and-forth with her about it.

***
“In the blink of an eye, everything can change. Not just because you momentarily lost focus because you closed your eyes, but they can really change. Sometimes, these changes are for the better – like when a baby gets its diaper changed – and enhance your life in some way; but oftentimes, the things that change are not exactly what you expected.”

–“Samuel Clemens,” Ramdiculous Page, March 23, 2007
***

Because I had rights in perpetuity to my comic, I happily lent new comics to Ramdiculous for free publication. Dante Residential officially switched papers the week after we returned from Spring Break, and took a shot at the dismissals. Keith joined me as a fellow contributor to Ramdiculous as we no longer had a radio show and desired an outlet; although we did try to get into the Ram Radio booth one night, but were turned away by the student assistant on Turner’s orders.

Sensing that this had become a free speech issue, the minds behind Ramdiculous began taking steps toward legitimizing their publication. What might have fizzled out after a few years suddenly became startlingly important to maintain on campus.

It was too late for me, however, because aside from the comic, I gave up on doing anything useful after that. The whole thing with the Communication, Drama, and Journalism department left me with tremendous pain.

No one on the Ram Page staff acknowledged me after my dismissal. They wouldn’t talk to me in the halls, they wouldn’t talk to me in class, and they wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I don’t know if it was because they genuinely felt that I had betrayed them, or if it was out of embarrassment, or if it was because they feared Johnson’s wrath for associating with me. Though I had made many new friends through Ramdiculous, the fact that my former friends refused to acknowledge me for the rest of the semester, all because of something so petty, really hurt my feelings.

It also stung when a student life adviser, who investigated the incident on Coers’ recommendation, told me that that the dismissals were still valid, though she said that the university would take steps to prevent such an incident from occurring again. I got the same response when I wrote to the new university president not long after.

I’m not proud of it, but I ultimately failed Turner’s class that semester. I just felt that it was pointless after my and Keith’s dismissals, and rather than try to turn things around, I let my depression get the better of me.

The semester’s saving grace ultimately came from my mother. When the semester was through, she wrote Johnson and Turner each an email telling them what they did was wrong. Turner received an extra dose of ire, since she’d once been our next door neighbor.

Johnson ignored the email. Turner responded curtly. Then something amazing happened.

The next day, Mom received an email from some guy named Jim, who had accidentally clicked “Reply All” responding to Turner. In the message history, she saw the following message from Turner, who had forwarded my mother’s email to Jim:
Remember my student Bryce Parsons -- the one who is no longer on the radio and who is failing my class? His mother came up to the University and cried and his Dad came too? I received this email this morning.
Mom showed me printouts of the email chain and explained its importance to me. Apparently, in the process of gossiping about us, Turner had violated a federal educational privacy law by revealing my full name and failure in her class to this strange man, whose email domain was most decidedly not that of Angelo State’s.

I felt a slow grin ease into my face. Turner’s forthcoming karma had suddenly reinvigorated me. We had caught her red-handed, and here was our proof.

After our attorney contacted the university, we submitted our evidence to the U.S. Department of Education. Patricia H. Turner was formally reprimanded and gone within a semester, all university employees were required to undergo privacy training, and the DoE eventually found in my favor.

That was a high point. A low point was one night that following August, when Keith and I ran into Charlotte and another Ram Page staffer at Whataburger. They tried in vain to ignore us as we heckled them for a couple of minutes, and we really ripped her for not sticking up for me. I’m not proud of that.

***

In the years that followed, a lot of things happened, and for the better.

It was decided that Ramdiculous couldn’t continue being an underground publication, partially because it gave Johnson leverage against them, and also because the computer labs were beginning to enforce printing limitations per semester. So the guys took steps towards making it an official student organization, meaning they could use organizational funds provided by the university to print the paper at the campus’ print shop.

Their only opposition was Johnson, who sat on the student organization advisory board and argued against them. From what I know, everyone else on that board voted to approve, and Ramdiculous was formally legitimized.

And to further stick it to Johnson, the ever-gregarious Seth Chomout ran for and won the Student Body President election that semester, moved Ramdiculous’ production into the SGA offices, then befriended the new senior editorial staff at the Ram Page; Ramdiculous even ran a photo of him posing with them. Eventually, the “feud” evaporated into a friendly rivalry among two groups of students, aside from Johnson standing by her criticism of the younger paper, and Ramdiculous writing about me on the first anniversary of my dismissals to remind the student body of what had happened.

Keith remained steadfastly loyal to Ramdiculous, submitting several articles that saw print. He eventually finished his degree at Angelo State on schedule, found his way into the workforce, and became an actuary.

Dr. Smith stepped down as department head for whatever reason. Though I couldn’t easily imagine her relinquishing the power she had once possessed, I still couldn’t stop smiling when I heard the news.

My own life didn’t carry on as I had originally intended. To clear my head after the tumultuous spring of 2007, I took three years off from college and worked for a while. My existing college credits qualified me for an Associate's Degree through Howard College, and a job as a junior/senior high substitute teacher. It wasn’t the greatest work in the world, but it did allow me to grow up a bit and confront several of my own personal demons.

The Ram Page ran into controversy when they ran an inflammatory feature article in February 2010. The editorial staff held a public forum to quell the controversy, and I made sure to attend as an observer. The students fielded criticism from the public and the student body, as Johnson watched quietly from the audience.

With Smith having stepped down, I felt safe enough to return to ASU in the fall of 2010 to finish my degree and take over production of Ramdiculous from its founders. As a silent protest, Keith and I even managed to get a new radio show on Ram Radio, which was overseen by a new professor who had succeeded Turner.

“You can even use this third microphone to interview people,” said the student manager as she showed me the booth.

“Could you repeat that?” I asked, smiling.

Because of ASU’s staff limitations, I was pretty much forced to take Johnson for a couple of classes to cover my major. Knowing that this woman was in charge of my grades, I kept my nose clean and didn’t even wear my Ramdiculous shirt to class. That is, until late one semester, after she explained to the class that one reason she opposed Ramdiculous was because the paper’s satire could one day be misconstrued as libel, and that it made the university look bad. Because someone might take something called “Ramdiculous” too seriously, I thought.

Beyond that, I made many new friends and connections, both through Ramdiculous and through my classes. I still have many of these friends to this day, and would not have met them had I stayed in school and graduated early. I’m grateful for the likes of Christine, Victoria, Pamela, Besspher, Adra, Julie, Peggy, Robert, and so many others who enriched my life.

The day before I crossed the stage in the spring of 2012, I told my story to the professor who replaced Smith as department head. He listened intently, then formally apologized to me on behalf of the entire department. It was cathartic, and I felt safe handing off Ramdiculous to a new generation of humorists, knowing that the majority of the campus supported them.

That fall, I was hired at my current job, and I absolutely love it and the new friends I work with. It kept me in my hometown, where I eventually met and married the beautiful Jenn, the love of my life, a few years later.

And it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for what I feel was an act of evil.

***

Cathy Johnson never gave me an answer as to why I had been fired and banned in 2007, or why she so vehemently opposed Ramdiculous, when I finally confronted her about it in 2012. She dismissed my questions because she “couldn’t remember.” A year later, my successor running Ramdiculous alleged that he personally witnessed her dumping an entire stack of issues into the trash. She remains, as of 2017, the Ram Page’s staff adviser.

One lesson I took from Johnson’s classes, and from other journalism classes, is that libel is difficult to claim when a statement consists of clearly stated opinions about an individual. So to protect myself from someone who I feel has shown a vindictive streak, I will make my opinions clear.

In my opinion, Dr. Cathy Johnson is a toxic person who bullies her students and micromanages the newspaper that she advises, and who gets away with it by hiding behind policies, arbitrary decisions, and what I feel is a saccharine and passive-aggressive veneer. To top things off, I truly feel that she does it without any empathy for those who get in her way.

It is my opinion that Cathy Johnson was the individual who instigated both of my dismissals in 2007, making sure that I was fully and completely barred from all journalism activities, and I base this opinion on her initial warning about Ram Radio. I am of the opinion that she never liked me much to begin with, though I don’t really know why she didn’t; and in my opinion, she tried to control my social life and college career with thinly-veiled threats that she ultimately followed through on by manipulating the Ramdiculous “feud” into something far worse than I feel it should have been. I also think it was her intention to make an “example” out of me in order to send the Ram Page and Ramdiculous a message.

But I also pity her. In my view, whatever drives Johnson to casually discard students’ work, even if that work is unconventional or critical, reveals a certain bitterness deep within her soul.

I don’t blame Charlotte or the rest of the Ram Page staff anymore. It took a lot of soul-searching to look past the hurt, but I truly believe they were all misinformed about everything that was going on that spring, and I don’t think they fully understood the implications of their involvement. At least one of them tried to make amends later, so there’s that.

However, June Smith and Patricia Turner were as equally culpable as Johnson, in my opinion. I honestly don’t know why they also treated me so severely when I had no previous quarrel with them, though I feel like they willingly sided with their work buddy instead of stepping up and doing the right thing. I feel like Smith totally abused her authority, and I am glad she’s no longer a department head. Turner, I feel, was blatantly and needlessly cruel to me, my best friend, and my mother, choosing to disparage us both directly and behind our backs; and I’m happy that she no longer appears to be teaching.

I pity them, too.

All that said, I forgive them all for what they did to me personally, and I think that the far-reaching effects of those women’s actions brought me to where I am today. In a lot of ways, I have become rather philosophical about it – sometimes I joke that they were all kind enough to take time out of a busy Wednesday to carefully teach me about how much stodgy humorlessness sucks – and to this day I still think of positive things that happened because of how that one negative event changed things for me.

It still troubles me greatly that Cathy Johnson is in charge of students in any capacity, though. Forgiveness is one thing, and I’m glad to be where I am today, but I just can’t shake the feeling that what happened to me will happen to someone else with far more dire results, and these fears have been exacerbated by my dredging up these memories for this tale. I am disappointed that Johnson was never censured for her actions, and I am disappointed that she continues to work as a Ram Page adviser with full tenure, because she potentially will never be forced to think outside the bubble of self-importance she has created, and will remain free to mess with other college students’ lives like she messed with mine.

That’s my opinion, anyway, and I sincerely hope I’m wrong. Johnson and the others are certainly free to refute any of these viewpoints should they ever find and read them. But in the end, ten years out, I find that my friends, family, and I have ultimately triumphed over the dishonor that Dr. Cathy Johnson and her ilk represent to us. For that reason, March 7 has become our day of celebration and reflection.

***

Keith now lives and works in Austin. I don't see him in person very often, but I do talk with him over Facebook Messenger on a regular basis. I’m going to be the best man at his wedding this summer.

And we did talk that evening in February 2017, nearly ten years after my dismissals, discussing what all had transpired back in 2007. He had asked me why I thought it was the most important event in my life.

“It changed the direction my life took,” I finally wrote. “I was probably going to graduate in 2008 or 2009. Instead I left school for three years and worked.

“I had a much better time when I returned, and I made friends and had experiences I wouldn't have had otherwise. It got me to where I am today. I might not have met Jenn had I graduated earlier; my original plan was to graduate and leave San Angelo. But I changed my mind during my time off.”

A moment passed, and I continued typing.

“Everything is connected,” I said. “It was an awful time, but it got me here. And it showed me how lucky I am to have you as my best friend.”

“Thanks, man,” Keith replied. “Glad to have you as my best friend, too.”

1 comment:

  1. Bryce, I absolutely love your telling this story: the ethics that you embraced, your innocent spirit, and the fight in which you and both your parents stood up to defend your values, beliefs and rights. Even in a society that by law guarantees freedom of speech, any individual can abuse their power and authority over others' lives--amazingly within the setting of a university, which by definition and purpose is where students are best encouraged to explore, question, and communicate with as many people and ideas as desired/as possible to develop their potential and growth as an ethical, informed, and thinking free human being!
    I am so proud of you and of your dear parents for standing up for you and your value and rights!

    Even though your story was a long one, I enjoyed reading every single word! It actually needed to be just as you wrote it in order to be fully understood and appreciated. I appreciate the path you followed and the lessons and rewards you earned along your way. I loved your conclusions and the way you enabled me to share your emotions! Absolutely great!

    ReplyDelete