Most of us go through high school with a group of cohorts who are famous only in their own minds. Once in a while a class produces a genuine celebrity, but rarely does the spotlight hit a high school class just months after graduation.
That, however, is exactly the dubious claim to fame now attached to West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North’s Class of 2010 — thanks to the accusations and imminent trial of Dharun Ravi in the cyber-spying case involving Tyler Clementi, his gay roommate who subsequently committed suicide.
The case has been used widely as an example of the horrors of cyber-bullying, particularly when aimed at a vulnerable member of a minority. But the teaching moment associated with this case may be more complicated than the various teachers, including politicians from Chris Christie to Barack Obama, initially portrayed it. A 13,000-word article in the February 6 New Yorker magazine brings out some startling nuances.
Summarizing the public condemnation of Ravi’s alleged behavior, staff writer Ian Parker writes: “It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”
Thanks to in-depth reporting, including interviews with several other members of the WW-P North Class of 2010, the New Yorker’s Parker describes a virtual world that most teenagers today take for granted, but that their parents might find unsettling. In high school Ravi toughened himself up hanging out online at a website called Formspring, “a place where teenagers show themselves able, or not, to withstand online assaults.”
In the case of both Ravi and Clementi, the awkward first moments in the freshman year dorm room were preceded by online research, in which each thought he had gained some valuable insight into the person with whom he would be sharing an 11 by 16-foot room.
Ravi exchanged E-mails and instant messages with his North classmate Jason Tam. Ravi had googled Clementi’s E-mail address and determined that Clementi had posted comments at Justusboys, a gay pornography and discussion site. “WTF,” Ravi wrote in various Twitter posts. “Found out my roommate is gay.”
For most of the media that — and other disparaging remarks about gays — was the stuff of blaring headlines. The New Yorker dug deeper. Some of Ravi’s online peers saw an opportunity in the situation. “He’ll bring back mad hot girls to your room and then you can be like / ladies / im not gay,” advised one of Ravi’s E-correspondents.
And beyond being gay, Clementi had another attribute that may have been even more undesirable to the self-consciously hip Ravi. Parker quotes an E-mail from Ravi to Tam: “I was f—-ing hoping for someone with a gmail but no.”
As the New Yorker’s Parker explains, “Clementi’s Yahoo E-mail address symbolized a grim, dorky world, half seen, of fish tanks and violins. Ravi’s I.M.s about Tyler’s presumed poverty were far more blunt than those about sexual orientation. At one point during his exchanges with Tam that weekend, Ravi wrote, ‘Dude I hate poor people’.”
Clementi harbored his own pre- and misconceptions about his new roommate, according to the New Yorker article.
“Clementi’s I.M. records offer a peculiarly intimate view of his first few hours with Ravi, after both sets of parents had left. As Ravi unpacked, Clementi was chatting with Hannah Yang [a girl who had been in his high school orchestra with him]. ‘I’m reading his twitter page and umm he’s sitting right next to me,’ he wrote. ‘I still don’t kno how to say his name.” Yang replied, ‘Fail!!!!! that’s hilarious.’ Clementi told Yang that Ravi’s parents had seemed ‘sooo Indian first gen americanish,’ adding that they ‘defs owna dunkin’ — a Dunkin’ Donuts. Clementi and Ravi seem to have responded in similarly exaggerated ways to perceived hints of modest roots in the other.”
At another point Clementi lamented to an online friend that he needed to have someone to talk to — “I NEED conversation.” When the friend tried to give Clementi advice on how to start a conversation, Clementi said he knew how to: “I’ve googled it like a million times / I kno all the ‘rules.’”
Google probably taught Clementi as much about interpersonal communication skills as Justusboys taught Ravi about alternative lifestyles. Rather than one being simply a bully and the other a victim, both are portrayed by the New Yorker as relatively equal participants in “a remote, electronic dynamic between the two students that was never quite overtaken by real-world engagement — even after they moved into a tiny room together.”
The communications environment may be vastly different, but the essential wisdom of these two college freshmen was, like that of so many teenagers through the ages, sadly lacking.
This column appeared in slightly different form in the February 17 West Windsor-Plainsboro News.