SATIRE + NERVE = NEWTON’S LAW AT R-FH

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Were they cut from a lesser bolt of corduroy, we might expect some snarkasm about this article from the four young men behind the Errant Notice, Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High‘s totally, totally unauthorized student newspaper.

For starters, they might wonder why it took redbankgreen so long to get around writing this piddling, insight-free feature about them, given that they’d granted us an interview back when the picture above was taken —?? in freakin’ January.

But we’re confident that they’ll utter no such digs—?? not in print, at least. Why? Well, for one thing, they’re all graduating next week and are no longer making monthly runs to Kinko’s, where they mass-produced their four-page broadsides.

More importantly, while the self-styled ‘Ernie Newtons’ behind this year’s volume of the Errant Notice may be clever and cutting and seemingly wired to mock, they are also gentlemen. In fact, they showed us a most civilized time back when they invited us into their swamp. Only they hadn’t told us it would be a swamp.

Here’s the backstory:

They agreed by phone to meet us at a Rumson address they suggested, without saying whose house it was, cautioning only that we should “dress warmly.” Visions of teenaged squatters gamboling in a vacant mansion-for-sale raced through our minds. That in turn gave way to thoughts of cops, a grainy YouTube video, post-mortems in the Columbia Journalism Review —?? ugly stuff.

Still, we went, and found ourselves in a cul-de-sac with four gangly adolescents in blazers, neckties and girlish ball masques. Without saying a word, they gestured for us to follow them into a blessedly dry wetland, where they had prepared a meeting place. It consisted of a folding table (covered with a ’70s-vintage afghan) surrounded by a motley mix of chairs.

There, in that Pythonesque tableau, they served ginger ale while earnestly fielding questions about their sometimes awkward efforts to upend convention and inject a little vinegar into life at a rather vanilla institution. And unlike their alter-ego publication, they weren’t snarky at all.

Quaint in both name and ideals, the Errant Notice is a monthly publication with many progenitors: the Harvard Lampoon and the Onion come immediately to mind. Its stated mission is “to make the lives of RFH-ers more boisterous, more entertaining, more absurd, in order to survive our necessary education.”

The current, soon-to-be-ex-staff consists of (from left in above photo) Jared Harlan, Christian Pettineo, Ryan Healey and Mike Roig. They churned out seven issues this year, up from four in the EN‘s first year.

Through a mix of occasionally overwrought, crass prose and underwrought illustrations, the EN aims for the funny bone of the well-cultured lover of fart jokes. Its voice is that of a kid who gets far better scores in the verbal part of the SAT’s than in the math; its tone is glib.

In an article taking on the “senior superlative sheets” given out to their class (apparently to cull “most likely to…” data for the yearbook), for example, the Ernies came up with a couple of their own categories, including “Most likely to look Chris Hansen in the eye on national television,” a reference to the host of NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series.

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One issue featured a review of a newly remodeled school lavatory (“The toilet seat, although a little cold at first, iss [sic] very comfortable, allowing for a smooth ride”).

But it’s not all potty, humor, to be sure. Some of the stuff could have appeared in the April Fool’s edition of any high school newspaper since around 1900, such as the article written in the taut style of history texts that purports to recount the “Rumson – Fair Haven War,” a civil conflict between municipalities in which “Fair Haven held a council meeting to establish identical garbage cans, its expression of nationalism.”

If nothing else, though, the Ernies view themselves as provocateurs in a realm of conformity, willing to push people’s buttons on issues of race, gender and the perils of the Internet. And more than once, the EN has ventured beyond the borders of mere taste and found itself accused of insensitivity, or worse. There was, for example, the “fun fact” published at Thanksgiving that read:

Black Friday was first practiced in Charleston, South Carolina. Every day after Thanksgiving reflected great deals on slaves.

The authors insist no racism was intended. Rather, they say they meant the line as a swipe at both racism and consumer culture.

They were also trying to build on the short tradition they’d inherited. The EN was launched during the 2006-’07 school year by Chris Carter, who’s just wrapped up his freshman year at the College of William and Mary, and four friends. Originally, they thought they might start a book discussion club; they were yearning, Carter says, “for something outside the curriculum, something a little questioning, something that had fewer boundaries.”

At a brainstorming session for a possible publication, classmate Erik de los Reyes came up with both the name and the EN’s logo —?? a flaming pencil. Then, in the tumbling way of teens, a desire for anonymity led the staff to start referring to their work on the project as “hanging out with Ernie Newton,” and a shared identity was born.

“We didn’t want to use it as a vessel to make ourselves seem cooler,” Carter says of the publication.

That first year yielded four issues, and frequent clashes with the administration, including one over when and where the off-campus publication could be distributed. Eventually, after consulting with the ACLU, the students learned they could only hand their paper out at school before the first bell, and tried to scrupulously honor the rule. Carter says that by the end of the year, administrators had become “very understanding” of what the Ernies were doing.

In the final issue that year, the authors wrote that that would be the end of the EN. But Ryan Healy, a former editor of the school-sanctioned (and overseen) campus paper, the Tower Tribune had “an absolute falling out with” with the Trib, partly over what he deems as the heavy hand of adminstration censorship.

“There was an article about censorship last year that got censored,” he says.

He asked Carter if he could keep the EN going. The answer was yes.

As is the wont for such publications, the Errant Notice staff grew without the benefit of any female voices, which the Ernies say frustrated them, until they simply had to conclude, says Roig, that “girls aren’t funny.” He’s quick to note that there were a couple of young women who might have fit in, but like too many of their classmates, they were absorbed by a singular focus on college, and declined.

And anyone most concerned about college probably wouldn’t want to have been involved in swatting the EN‘s biggest target: school administrators. One in particular, vice principal Christopher Lanzalotto, was subjected to repeated roastings.

One issue of the EN mocked Lanzalotto over a school policy that allows the administration to confiscate students’ cellphones and inspect their call histories. It reported that that number 101 on Lanzalotto’s list of the top 100 things he needs to do is “competently administrating Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School.”

For his part, and despite some serious clashes, “Lanz” was a good-natured foil, the Ernies say.

“I may be guilty of many things, but not having a sense of humor is NOT one of them,” Lanzalotto told the editors.

Still, at one point, the Ernies were given in-school suspensions for creating an “offensive publication,” in the words of the paperwork given them —?? despite the fact that the EN was published off-campus. Afterward, they claim, they got an an apology; by then, though, they’d spent one day in a study-hall like isolation, during which they were expected to keep quiet and do homework. Alas, there were computers in the room, and “we managed to appease the guards so that they let us talk and have a meeting,” says Healy. Instead of homework, they cranked out the next EN, the entire issue of which was about their punishment.

FreeerniesSome of the ‘Free Ernie” protesters.

Meanwhile, about 80 students wore orange and brown t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Free Ernie” to school that day. The Ernies themselves had masterminded the demonstration and production of the shirts.

That was not the first time the Ernies shook up the routine at R-FH. Late last year, they created on Facebook an “Ernie Newton” character, a fictitious teen who struck up online conversations with real R-FH students by pretending that he was about to transfer to the school.

But a suspicious freshman printed out the Facebook profile and gave it to administrators, who alerted parents and faculty. Soon, there were rumors of a pederast trolling for information about R-FH students. Police were called, and Roig, a member of the Boy Scouts, was questioned —?? “for my safety,” he says.

To the authors, it was all an enormous overreaction to something silly and innocuous, and it neatly proved their belief that the school could use some lightening up.

“We never said anything perverse or anything that would influence rumors of sexual predators,” insists Healy. “It was just high school kids gossiping.”

redbankgreen asked R-FH Principal Tracey Handerhan for an interview a few months back about the EN, but she declined, saying the publication “not an issue” at the school. Lanzalotto also declined.

Now on the verge of becoming ex-Ernies, the foursome is looking forward to seeing it continue. At the moment, there’s a junior who’s interested it taking up the flaming pencil. “We respect our elders and we definitely will pass the torch,” says Roig.

And when they look back on their senior year, will the EN experience stand out ? “Definitely,” says Healy.

“This has been the platform for most of the memories the senior class has about senior-year pranks,” he says.

Besides, he says, “when i think about senior year, it’s kind of hard to distinguish it from the Errant Notice. They’re kind of one and the same.”

Here are two recent issues the the Errant Notice:

Download ErrantNotice2.pdf

Download ErrantNotice6.pdf

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