Seventeen-year-old Patrick Agin often spends a week whittling a single arrow, and he’s learning to make chain mail armor by hand. So when it came time to submit a senior yearbook photo, he selected a snapshot of himself wearing chain mail and slinging a prop sword over his shoulder.
Portsmouth High School rejected the photo, citing a “zero tolerance policy” for weapons, and Agin and his family sued, claiming the school was violating his right to free speech.
But Agin and others who spend their free time sword fighting and feasting on medieval-style meals also wonder why the school would discourage his passion for a hobby they say offers tens of thousands of people a way to learn about history through hands-on experience.
“It’s no different from wanting to appear in a Boy Scout uniform,” said Tamara Griggs, a spokeswoman for the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of 35,000 dues-paying members that stage mock battles, learn arts like calligraphy and conduct demonstrations in shopping malls. Agin belongs to the organization.
Popular activity in area
During the winter, the society holds one-on-one combat events at churches and schools. In better weather, regional groups called “kingdoms” rent campgrounds and stage epic battles with as many as 1,000 soldiers per side.
Portsmouth Principal Robert Littlefield said allowing a student to brandish a weapon in his senior portrait was against school policies. The school isn’t obligated to provide a forum for every student’s outside interests, he said.
“I don’t see our action as discouraging anyone’s hobby,” Littlefield said. “I don’t see our yearbook as a vehicle where we guarantee everyone an opportunity to broadcast their hobby to our audience.”
The ACLU, which filed the suit in federal court in December, calls the zero tolerance policy inconsistent. It points out that the school’s mascot, a patriot, is sometimes shown carrying a weapon.
A federal judge asked the state education commissioner to offer a recommendation in the case. He is expected to do so within weeks.
Agin came to the society through his mother, Heidi Farrington, who sews and sells re-enactment clothing to medieval fans.
“They really appreciate people researching things, whether it’s textiles or armor or food or any of the skills that would have been applicable,” Farrington said. She said she learned to spin wool through the organization.
Bad decision about individuality?
She said the high school’s decision sends a bad message about free thinking and individuality and could conceivably lead the school to ban masterpieces like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which depicts a fatal stabbing.
“The schools have gotten so into standardization that they are starting to push it on the kids,” she said.
Ed Morrill of New York, a regional director whose society alter ego is Viscount Edward Zifran of Gendy, called the group “a very good place for someone to come and learn something new.”
Morrill, who began attending society events in 1973, said a lot of people don’t understand the group’s appeal, but he does: “It’s not your father’s organization. It’s something that’s different but something that’s socially acceptable.”
Society member Nicole Toscano understands the passion that would make someone pose for the yearbook in armor. The student at Simmons College in Boston joined the society at age 7 and works out to keep fit for mock sword fights.
“It’s just like any other sport or any martial art. I enjoy doing it just like I was playing football,” said Toscano, who also practices calligraphy.
Agin, who is considering joining the military after graduating this year, said he’ll likely opt for a pink tuxedo, not armor, to wear to his senior prom.
In the meantime, he plans to take part in more re-enactments.
“I’ve actually been talking to a knight to become a squire,” he said.