Discover more from MAN of MISSOURI
Sex, Gender Identity and the Willard Middle School Library
Detonated No. 1
**For even more Willard news, including aggregated links to Willard news from other local outlets, visit the Facebook group Willard, MO - ONLY NEWS & STORIES.
“WAKE UP, EVERYBODY!”
September 15th, at the Board of Education meeting of the Willard R-II School District, Lizzie Nothum, who ran unsuccessfully for school board in April, took to the podium during patron input. She held aloft a shiny red book wrapped in a protective clear-plastic cover, the kind of protective cover used in libraries.
“Wake up, everybody!” she began.
Anticipating what was about to happen, I instinctively dropped my head and pretended to be typing on the Bluetooth keyboard that I use to enter meeting highlights into my iPad. I did not look up again until after Mrs. Nothum (pronounced NO-thumb) had finished speaking several minutes later.
Today’s school libraries, as it turns out, are not the bastions of childhood innocence that I remember.
NOTE: This article includes excerpts from books available at the middle school library.
A decade ago, my spouse seriously wondered if perhaps I’d lost my mind. You probably will, too, after reading this article. And that’s okay.
One September evening, after a lifetime of having done so, I announced I was no longer going to vote.
Around the same time, and on what felt like a whim, I asked her if I could eventually start homeschooling our kids, neither of whom were yet old enough to attend school.
I also wanted to stop using public libraries. To stop using public parks. To stop using so many of the things that I’d once had no problem with at all.
My wife didn’t understand. And I was unable to explain why I’d changed. I only knew that something no longer felt “right” about the way I’d been interacting with the people and the world around me.
Not much earlier, I’d begun to notice the news media portraying those I disagreed with as “bad”, that what they wanted was evil, that I should regard them as enemies.
But some of those “bad” people were my family. Some were my close friends.
It didn’t feel right. So one day I turned it off. I never turned it back on again.
In a very short span of time, I’d stepped away from nearly everything that once made me who I was — being a good citizen, the responsibility to vote, staying politically involved, etc. And, in those few short months, it was as if a capsizing vessel righted itself, as if all the drowning waters drained away, and what remained was a battered ship, but on a clear and open sea.
I did not fully understand what had happened. I only knew whatever storm had held me before, I never wanted to return to ever again.
A decade later, and now I’m beginning to understand. Particularly after struggling to fairly present several unreconcilable perspectives for the purpose of writing this article.
THE FREIGHT TRAIN
Mrs. Nothum passionately related how her 12-year-old son had checked out the book from the Willard Middle School Library. How after reading a few pages he came to her disturbed by the books content. And how upset she was that a book with provocative sexual situations (among other things) was available to middle school students.
She even read aloud a select passage to everyone present to accentuate her point.
I was embarrassed. Not so much for myself, but for the board members and the school staff to whom Lizzie addressed her concerns.
Before Mrs. Nothum’s input, the board meeting had been a long series of “high fives“ with presentations from staff and students, each celebrating the accomplishments from the prior school year. For more than forty minutes, the room was charged with a feeling of positivity.
But after the students had left and Lizzie began speaking, it was as if an enormous locomotive had derailed somewhere outside the building and unexpectedly slammed through the rock-hard walls of the district office — coming to rest in the middle of the board room, bringing with it massive destruction, and destroying everything that had gone before.
Audio of Mrs. Nothum is here.
THE WILLARD MIDDLE SCHOOL
The book in question is How It All Blew Up by Arvin Amhadi.
British book retailer Waterstones describes the story of eighteen-year-old Amir Azadi coming out to his Muslim family as “a nuanced take on growing up brown, Muslim and gay in today's America”.
The scene that Mrs. Nothum read aloud from How It All Blew Up portrays two male students having intercourse in a school locker room.
But before I continue, allow me to dispel a few anticipated assumptions some readers may have about why I’ve written this article.
Now, I know myself well enough to recognize that I am, by comparison, probably the most morally questionable person who attends the Willard Board of Education meetings.
I do not go to church. Nor have I lived a noble or righteous life. And, in at least one area of consensual adult behavior, I am a complete and unapologetic libertine.
Yes, I oftentimes look, sound, and act respectable. And in some ways I am, but in many ways I’m not.
So while I empathize with Mrs. Nothum’s concerns and would certainly not allow my eleven-year-old daughter to read sexually-provocative material, I also sympathize with other parents who, for reasons I’ll share below, may have no problem with the book at all.
And besides, How It All Blew Up is certainly not the only title in the middle school library that portrays what many would probably consider age-inappropriate sexual situations.
From a cursory look through the library’s online card catalog, and after exploring other districts that have had to deal with this issue, there are a number of books at the middle school that include scenes of straight sex, such as teen romance trilogy Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, or the series A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas; books that portray the sexual experiences of lesbians and trans persons, such as Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, or Something Like Gravity by Amber Smith; and books that delve explicitly into abusive sexual relationships, such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez, or Damsel by Elana K. Arnold. And there appear to be a number of others, as well.
Undoubtedly, there are parents with a different perspective from Mrs. Nothum who are entirely supportive of those books being part of the middle school library catalog. For example, parents concerned about LGBTQ+ rights, about inclusion and discrimination, about gender identity, bullying, etc. And I’d imagine there are parents who find the subject matter to be of little to no concern because they already allow their kids to watch similar fare on television at home.
There is also a Bible in the library, a Quran, a Book of Mormon and probably other religious themed books, as well. As far as Christian fiction, there is the MindWar trilogy by Andrew Klavan, The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and likely others under different categories. Although admittedly, searching for “Christian fiction” or “Christian life” did not return many results, and some of those results appeared to be disparaging, rather than supportive of the Christian faith.
DEAR KEVIN COSTNER
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Field of Dreams” from 1989. Kevin Costner plays Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella who, after hearing a ghostly voice one night in his cornfield, plows under his crop and builds a baseball diamond in its place.
Now, I don’t care for baseball, but the whimsical nature of the story hits a home run over the walls of my heart every single time (and, yes, that was meant to elicit an eye roll).
But there is one scene that I’ve always found uncomfortable to watch. The scene where Annie Kinsella, Ray’s spouse, makes a passionate appeal to free speech in front of the local school board. Books are in danger of being banned, you see. And Annie is presented as the enlightened heroine, whereas the “banners” are depicted as one-dimensional fundamentalist dimwits.
It is neither a fair portrayal of either side’s preferences or of free speech. And it illustrates the very common conundrum that always occurs when society tries to separate free speech from property rights, as we do with state-run schools.
At home, because of property rights, you can easily turn away those who otherwise might feel they have a free speech “right” to come into your living room and lecture you on religion or gender. But once we separate free speech from property rights, finding a solution to any disagreement over speech is immediately thrown into inextricable confusion.
“OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS”
At the end of her speech, Mrs. Nothum called for a district-wide review of curriculum and library materials. She used the phrase “our public schools”, as if what she wants is what everyone wants. And perhaps it is what a majority want. But even if she somehow wins her battle with the support of a majority, it will mean that other families will lose the battle and be denied what they prefer — precisely the position Mrs. Nothum now finds herself in regarding her own family’s preferences.
I can’t blame parents for trying to align the standards of the school their children attend — for thirteen or more years of their formative life — with the standards of their family.
Mrs. Nothum merely wants her children’s library books to be filled with what she considers to be age-appropriate, value-affirming content. Other equally concerned families merely want books to be available with what they consider to be LGBTQ+ inclusive content that aligns with their values. In the same way, some families prefer abstinence-only sex education, while others prefer comprehensive sex education. A list of the differences between families would be quite long and each issue impossible to reconcile.
But a state-run school system relies on funding and decision-making mechanisms that are based entirely on monopoly and majoritarian force. There are no property rights allowing each parent to decide what’s best for their family. Any parent who disagrees with a decision is stuck with whatever the majority or administration impose. It is impossible for such a system to ever be able to satisfy the widely dissimilar preferences of hundreds of different families. Especially when it can’t even satisfy the whipsawing, narrowly-differentiated preferences of just two major political parties.
Though most everyone is required by law to pay into this state-run system, the notion of “our public schools” is nothing more than a myth. There is no “our”; there is only recurring division that is oftentimes intense. And, when your policy preferences aren’t met, you can either comply, fight back, or leave. And even when you leave, still you must pay into the system.
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
And who, other than the kids, gets stuck squarely in the middle of any controversy the current system engenders?
The school board. The superintendent. The teachers. The staff.
And those folks are already required to spend far too much time complying with the ever-changing federal and state regulations and testing standards that are routinely foisted upon them by their elected and unelected “betters”.
Speaking of the superintendent, Eric Wilken has a motto:
One Team. One Willard.
If I understand correctly, it’s the idea that people can, within an atmosphere of trust and good communication, choose to set aside their political differences to focus on the educational needs of kids.
It’s certainly a noble goal and one that I favor. And it could work under a voluntaryist approach. But I don’t see how it can work under the one-size-fits-all, force-based system of education that now exists. Because groups deeply at odds with one another will always try to impose their will over everyone else.
In case you missed it, the Springfield News-Leader wrote a nice biographical article worth reading about Eric back in July.
THE DISTRICT RESPONSE
Upon request, Heather Harman-Michael, Director of Communications & Public Relations, provided the following response:
“The Willard School District and Board of Education believes that instructional media centers/libraries are a fundamental part of the educational process. The district meets individual learning needs, provides flexible and innovative learning experiences, and encourages independent learning by providing sufficient resource options to students and staff. Subsequently, we strive to meet the school media standards as prescribed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The value and impact of any textbook, library or other instructional material will be judged as a whole, taking into account the purpose of the material rather than individual and isolated expressions or incidents of the work.
It is necessary to have an orderly procedure that will assure a fair hearing to those who have objections and that will provide for a thorough investigation of disputed materials. The process described in our board policies found here is intended to assure that carefully considered judgments are made in response to criticism or objections.
The board encourages community input and comments and is committed to providing an environment where all students are valued, represented, and heard.”
WHAT OTHER LOCAL DISTRICTS HAVE DONE
Other local districts have dealt with the issue by retaining some disputed titles, by restricting access to others, and by removing some books entirely. Articles about how Nixa and Ozark approached the issue can be found here and here respectively.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Well, that partly depends on which side of the issue you fall on.
The Supreme Court addressed the matter of school boards removing library books in Board of Education vs. Pico in 1982. But the case did not end in a clear decision. You can read more about it here.
In August, the Missouri General Assembly passed legislation that, according to the Columbia Missourian, “bans any visual materials containing ‘sexually explicit’ content in schools — specifically, any visual depiction, from photographic to computer-generated images, that depicts sexual acts or human genitals.”
The law only appies to visual materials and seems primarily aimed at graphic novels (similar to comic books), such as this and this that have been pulled from some Missouri schools. Neither of these titles appear in the Willard R-II School District library catalog.
Read more about the recent law here.
To Retain Access
If you favor retaining access to disputed books, the American Library Association is a great place to start. ALA compiled this list of “what you can do to fight censorship, keep books available in libraries, and promote the freedom to read”.
However, I think this article is more helpful, even if it does (mistakenly, in my opinion) root the issue of book bans in “white supremacy”.
The American Civil Liberties Union may also be able to offer assistance through their Defend Every Student's Right to Learn campaign.
You can read about recent ACLU efforts to prevent book bans in Missouri here.
Also, please be sure to read the note below.
To Limit Access
If you favor removing or limiting access to disputed books, a good first step would be to reach out to Moms For Liberty, an organization “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government”.
Moms For Liberty offers a number of online resources at the link above, including this parent guide.
The district policy mentioned above is the official place to start. To initiate the formal complaint process, ask for a copy of the Request for Reconsideration of Materials form, “which must be completed and returned to the building principal. The item under consideration must be returned to the building principal with the completed form.”
NOTE: In my experience, a bureaucratic “orderly procedure” is little more than a “relief valve” designed to funnel and dissipate public pressure to the benefit of the status quo rather than concerned parents. And that opinion applies to the concerns of parents on either side of this issue. At a minimum, I’d suggest attending a school board meeting and making your voice heard.
WHAT I AM DOING
Maybe the most important step is the one I’m not taking.
As a parent, I believe my spouse and I know what’s best for our family; it is the primary reason that we homeschool. However, I do not know what is best for your family, which is one of the many reasons I no longer vote.
But I can certainly understand why others may feel that they must vote in order to defend themselves against those who constantly try to tell them how to live.
Even though I do not vote, I still have a voice. And sometimes I use it, as I’ve done here.
The struggle over control of state-run education will never end. And, as our differences increase, it will only get worse.
Most of us tend to stop finding reasons to fight with one another when a) our preferences are being met and b) we aren’t forced to pay for the preferences of those with whom we disagree.
But to do so is impossible when we build systems — even those adorned with the helpful, smiling faces of teachers — that are ultimately predicated on the threat of violence if one does not comply or refuses to pay.
By contrast, in so many other areas of society, there exist a great diversity of entirely voluntary options that serve large swaths of the population and do so without the threat of force:
Secular and Christian homeschool co-ops of all stripes that serve families with widely different preferences. The multitude of different church denominations, each organized and entirely self-funded by people with shared values — some of the very same denominations, incidentally, that once warred with one another over which group would control state-run religion.
The core problem with state-run education is one that will never be solved, because it cannot be solved. And all the excuses being made to continually repair its unsound foundations completely fall apart under scrutiny.
Many parents have, quite understandably, resigned themselves to the monotony of a system where it is simply easier to comply with the status quo and the demands of those who continually fight to have their way.
It would be better to separate education and state, and let each family do what makes them happy.
ADDENDUM: STATEMENT FROM LIZZIE NOTHUM
A week or so ago, I reached out through Facebook hoping to find someone willing to share an opinion that would serve as a counterpoint to Mrs. Nothum. I’d still like to do so if anyone would be interested in providing a response.
Since Mrs. Nothum was featured in this article, I messaged her to ask if she would like to share any further thoughts or to correct anything I’d written about her. She was gracious enough to provide the following:
“I am not for banning books. I am for having age-and-content appropriate books.
I am not anti-LGBTQ, and I agree with inclusion. But genuinely explicit sexual content should not be made available to minors.
Not everyone has Christian values or the same values as me and my family. And that is what is beautiful about America. But I think most people will agree that explicit sexual content — whether visual or written, whether heterosexual or homosexual — should not be available to students.
I value the freedom to read whatever books and content adults want to read, except for pornography and pedophilic material.
I am super excited about Eric Wilken being superintendent. I appreciate and respect him and all the admin/school board members for what they do.
But I have my children’s mental, intellectual, and spiritual health as my top priority. So, I will most definitely hold people accountable when adult material is found in their schools.”