On Tuesday night, the Clarence School Board held its regularly scheduled March meeting. On the agenda was a review of the curriculum procedure regarding materials that some parents might find objectionable. This is a completely reasonable thing for a board member to want to discuss, and wholly uncontroversial.
However, late last week, an inflammatory hit list of allegedly obscene or inappropriate books and other materials was sent to selected homes in town. I obtained a copy of it and posted it widely – here at Artvoice and on social media sites. It – and my accompanying letter to the board – spread throughout the town.
The people who had hoped that Tuesday’s meeting would include a discussion of an inappropriate curriculum were met with a shocker last night. These meetings – at best – attract about 20 spectators. This time, however, the place was literally standing room only.
The board flew through its regular agenda, including a somewhat distressing presentation about the district’s understaffed special education department – last year’s budget crisis eliminated all of the social workers. Zero, nada, zilch. Kids who need these special services include those who undergo some sort of situational trauma like death, disease, divorce, drugs, or depression. So, it’s an interesting coincidence that many of the books on the hit list included kids who underwent similar traumas – especially rape. It was also striking to me that the majority of the books on the hit list were written by women, had female lead characters, or advocated somehow for the notion that women not be victims of assault, and that they are human beings equal to men in all things.
When the discussion turned to this agenda item, Trustee Jason Lahti, who originally brought the matter up, begged off the controversy, indicating that he merely wanted to discuss the curriculum process, not ban any books. He indicated that he did not know anything about the letter and hit list from his wife, Ginger, that circulated throughout the town. Trustee Roger Showalter, Ginger’s brother, tersely indicated his satisfaction with the town’s opt-out provision for parents or kids who find materials objectionable. Then the rest of the board spoke. Every single Trustee spoke passionately and eloquently about the teachers, the students, the curriculum, and the adequacy of the current policies. Julie McCullough got the first standing ovation, and a huge sigh of relief when I realized that the crowd was there to defend – not defame – the books and faculty. Board President Michael Lex spoke about the need for adolescents to learn about overcoming assault and adversity, and quoted the author of hit list book Speak:
But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” – Laurie Halse Anderson
Then, the community spoke. Student after student – some current, some recent alums – was unbelievably brave and eloquent. Not only had they been taught to be rational analysts and critical thinkers, but good speakers, too. They defended specific books – one especially brave young alum spoke of her own assault and how it affected her mental health, causing her to drop out of college. She explained that she suffered terrible anxiety, yet she stood bravely in front of the board and 100+ members of the community to defend Speak, holding up her dog-eared copy and explaining how it helped her. Kids stood and defended their teachers and the way in which they teach these materials in a thoughtful and engaging way.
There were a small handful of people there who were there to defend the hit list. Ginger Lahti herself was there, and tried to disassociate herself from the controversy. While Channel 2 was airing an interview with her in which she acknowledged preparing the mailing to address “obscene” works, she stood before the community to explain that it wasn’t even her list, that she had only shared it with two pastors, and that she doesn’t know how it got circulated. She said she wanted to see what the community thought, and she acknowledged that the community was clearly just fine with the current policy. One woman relentlessly attacked the works, alleging that she and her family had opted out over 30 times because of language and themes in some of the works, and she saved especial ire for the sex ed curriculum. Frankly, if you’re opting out of award-winning literature 30 times, perhaps public school just isn’t for you.
However, the four people, including Lahti, who spoke about the hit list did raise an important issue – some kids who opt out have no meaningful alternative, and are just sent to the library for weeks at a time.
When I spoke I thanked the board for bringing this matter to the community’s attention, and thanked Mr. Lahti specifically. I said it was good to, basically, air grievances and discuss how to make policies work better, and that it was important that the handful of affected opt-out parents bring the issues of alternatives to the board’s attention so that these matters can be handled better. But I pointed out the Blue 4 Ben movement and argued that the community was capable of great things when we work together, rather than trying to rip people apart. While the agenda seems uncontroversial now, when it was coupled with the outrageous hit list, it certainly seemed to be a set-up for an effort to ban books and restrict the faculty’s and students’ rights. While Mrs. Lahti now disavowed the list and said she didn’t know where it came from, I noted that she referenced it in her letter. I closed by noting how my parents emigrated to this country in order to flee totalitarian dictatorship and a place where they were told what to think, what to read, and with whom to associate, and never did anyone imagine that we’d be facing similar issues in the U.S. a half-century later.
The faculty – Mr. Zahn and Mr. Starr spoke passionately to defend the teachers and the curriculum, but also the Constitution. There was the kid who joked that the books on the hit list were so harmful to his upbringing that, instead of being back at college doing drugs, drinking, and having sex, he was at a school board meeting during Spring break defending the wholesomeness of his education. One parent stood to link the earlier special education presentation to the issues brought up in many of these books – how will we adequately help kids who suffer real-life traumas if we refuse properly to fund the nurses, special education, and school psychological staff.
It was a glorious night, and the board just killed it. A packed house to defend free speech and critical thinking. A packed house to defend controversial books and essays, arguing that these materials are part of a carefully crafted, well-considered curriculum, and that the works are handled appropriately, with care.
Yesterday, in advance of the meeting, I took some time to learn a little bit about each book on the hit list. Each one of them is an important, noteworthy work that teaches adolescents a valuable lesson.
But I learned a valuable lesson, too. I learned that the kids are awesome. They’re brave, well-spoken, thoughtful, and hungry for knowledge. Whether it was the professional-quality, amazing production of Spamalot that the high school drama club put on last weekend, or the heartfelt speakers last night, they made us all proud.