death by comma

I’ve told this story a million times before, both out loud and online – in fact, I think it was the very first article I ever posted on the internets. I can’t find it now (and I’m sure I’d be horrified at the writing – believe it or not, what you’re reading now is actually a vast improvement over my words from ago), so I’ll offer it up again for your amusement: the story of the time I told my entire high school to kill themselves.

In grade 12, I chose Journalism as one of my electives. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and once upon a time I intended to go into UVic’s creative writing program so I could grow up to be some sort of fancy writer person. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons and I think I’m better off for it, but even back then the urge to share too much information with a captive audience was strong in this one. Journalism would allow me to write for the school newspaper, and people would read my words. Awesome!

Depending on who you asked, I was either fantastic or horrible at Journalism. On the good side, I wrote. A lot. We were a small class filled mostly with slackers who wanted to get out of taking PE, so not everyone pulled their writing weight. We had a lot of space to fill, and I was more than happy to churn out article after article to fill the holes left by my classmates. It got to a point where I was writing over 50% of the newspaper, which would have been a good thing if I had any skill whatsoever, and if not for one other little thing:

I can’t write serious to save my life. Sure, I could produce a thousand pages of somewhat entertaining drivel or opinion pieces from here til April, but it was a NEWSPAPER – not a blog (which didn’t exist back then in the early months of the Industrial Revolution). We needed news articles, not a mock exposé on the math teacher. We needed serious, hard-hitting journalism (at a 12th grade level) – scandals in the cafeteria! History about the school! Interviews with popular students! A glowing report on what the student council had achieved that year! (note: I wrote a scathing piece on everything the student council HADN’T done that year after they rewarded themselves with a ski trip funded with school money we had raised and got in serious trouble for it: my first backlash! Oh, the memories!). I was and still am no good at writing non-biased informative articles, and people started to get tired of my own special brand of often misunderstood humour.

My completely awesome Journalism teacher saw that I was getting frustrated with the constant outrage I faced from students and teachers alike (seriously, having your Teacher Advisor call you a “no-talent little bitch” can really damage your self-esteem), so he offered to let me try my hand at something new: editing the school newspaper. Previously, all articles were submitted to him for editing, then the whole class worked on the layout. I obviously knew how to write things; it was time for a new challenge. He handed the whole lot over to me, and I was on my way.

I loved being the Editor. I read each article submitted by my classmates and wielded the Red Pen of Superior Word Skills – I slashed and diced and made changes and rewrote sentences and, in one fateful moment, told the entire congregation that it was A-OK to commit suicide.

A classmate wrote a serious, heavy-handed article on suicide. It’s bad, she wrote. Don’t do it. I thought the piece was pretty crappy, but I needed something to go on the front page that wasn’t a recipe for Flapper Pie (long story), so up it went. I wasn’t satisfied with just leaving the article alone, though – I was the EDITOR. I wanted to EDIT it; to leave my mark on it so people would know that I, KIMLI THE EDITOR, had had a hand in everything that happened in our class.

The last line of the article was a little too convoluted for my tastes:

If you’re thinking about committing suicide, don’t, ask for help.

Where’s the punch? Where’s the drama? Even at 17, I was a die-hard fan of the dramatic pause. I changed the last sentence to read:

If you’re thinking about committing suicide, don’t. Ask for help.

A Pulitzer Prize winning line if ever there was one!

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out what happened: mad with power, I removed the author’s second comma so I could replace it with a period – and then I forgot to put the period in. The newspaper went to print with the line reading:

If you’re thinking about committing suicide, don’t ask for help.

The newspaper was distributed to every student before someone caught the mistake. We had to recall as many issues as we could, and cross out the word “don’t” with a black sharpie. The principal came on the PA system and delivered a 30 minute impassioned speech on not killing yourself. The next day, our entire school had to attend an assembly on why you shouldn’t kill yourself. I was mortified and devastated – my desire to get my name out there worked a little too well, and EVERYONE knew who did it. I never edited the school newspaper again, and to this day, I am deathly afraid of the comma – I know firsthand the horrible power that innocuous little swoosh contains. My friends and family STILL make fun of me for my mistake at every opportunity, and if I hadn’t learned to laugh at myself, I may have taken my own advice.

Now you know (yet another of) my horrible secret(s).

I am starting to run out of horrible secrets.

PS: Don’t kill yourself.

7 thoughts on “death by comma

  1. Why is it the worse high school was for you, the better stories you have?

    Thank you, thank you, for telling your story.

  2. I think it’s awesome that you created such a stir at your school. IMO it was worth any mortification. I only wish I had done such a thing!

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