Henry DeGroot spent his last semester of high school in China. The 18-year old teenager from Newton, Massachusetts, was on a four-month study abroad program.
But when Chinese school officials found out he'd written some pro-democracy messages in a Chinese student’s notebook, he got into some serious hot water. He had to serve five hours in detention and, after returning home, his high school's principal barred him from the senior prom.
The episode happened during a student visit to a rural village high school near Beijing, after DeGroot and his fellow American students from Newton North High School met with some middle school-aged Chinese students to practice traditional Chinese paper cutting.
Afterward, the Chinese students asked the visitors to write something in their notebooks. "Basically they came up to us with their notebooks and they wanted us to write something” in English, DeGroot says. "Some of my peers were writing 'stay in school!' or something like that, but I was kind of bored, I didn't think anyone would make anything of it so I wrote 'Don't believe the lies your school and government tell you,' I also wrote 'Democracy is for cool kids' and 'It's right to rebel' which is actually a quote from Mao Zedong."
When one of the Chinese school teachers found out, DeGroot was reprimanded and had to serve five hours of detention. Then, when he returned home, some Newton school officials said he showed disrespect for the Chinese and that the longstanding exchange with the school may have been harmed.
DeGroot says he thought writing in the notebooks was "kind of funny" at the time, but says "I do really believe in what I was saying, in the things that I wrote." He says he did consent to his high school's exchange program guidelines, including one that urges students to be on their best behavior while in China. But DeGroot says he was having a private conversation with other students, that he didn't express anything vulgar, and certainly was not giving a speech. He acknowledges he was advised not to do anything that would risk getting him arrested or anyone else arrested but he adds, "at the same time, I don't believe the school should be supporting a policy of supressing free speech. They can't just pass this policy and then hide behind it."
As for the Chinese students who may have faced reprimands or worse for having notebooks with hand-written pro-democracy slogans, DeGroot says he doesn't believe they were at any real risk: "I don't think that's realistic or that there's any evidence that that would happen. The administrators there aren't idiots. They could clearly see that it was me who wrote these things. Most of the students there barely speak English. I don't see why they would be penalized for my actions."
He adds “China has been and still is totalitarian and authoritarian with the Communist Party ruling things, but at the same time, they're not dumb. They know who did this, and they know it's not the kids' fault."
DeGroot, who has studied Mandarin for seven years, admits his actions may have been a little stupid, but at the same time says his school shouldn't support the suppression of free speech. He says the school exchange has other problems too.
"It seems like the Chinese school is just using Newton North to send Chinese kids here so that they can bolster their college resumes and go to American colleges," he explained.
On the other hand, DeGroot has nothing but praise for his host family, calling them "amazing. I've really never had that experience of being so welcome among strangers who invited me into their own home to live with them in America, so it really showed me the importance of the family in Chinese society."
DeGroot says his school insisted he apologize for his actions. So he wrote a letter in which, he says, he "explained why, in my culture, individualism and criticism are important and that we don't believe that any idea should be too taboo to talk about." But he says he was told to take those ideas out of the letter.
In the end, he says, "honestly I'm not sorry. I kind of regret it, but I'm definitely not sorry about it. Those are two different things."
And either way, he still missed the prom. Because he'd already rented a tuxedo, DeGroot says he took his date out for burgers and fries. He says the sight of their tuxedo and prom dress at a local fast food joint caused quite a scene and made for a fun evening — despite missing out on the dance.