My kids are away for the weekend, and here I sit—drinking Dr. Pepper from a wineglass (no wine on hand)—remembering.
Remembering how excited I was to start teaching. Remembering the Master’s course in which I created a classroom group work matrix that included literature circles. Remembering the first semester I tried it, and how it failed horribly because I didn’t have literature kids would read. Remembering the combination of excitement and nervousness in my stomach when I raided Joseph-Beth Booksellers for discount YA literature, hoping that if it didn’t overdraw my bank account, that I would still have enough left to buy groceries. Remembering the way my face hurt from smiling when literature circles finally worked, when I had to ask kids to put their books away so I could teach, and when I saw kids bumping into lockers as they walked down the halls reading their YA novels.
Remembering how the same kids begged me to start a book club so they could keep reading good books, and how amazed I was when membership rose from 15 to 130 students from January of 2007 to August of 2008. Remembering the way I poured my soul into the Student Achievement grant to the National Education Association, citing our poor community and equally poor test scores, requesting money to buy books that students would read. And remembering the day NEA posted me as the recipient on their website. And after that, remembering the sheer joy of listening to students intelligently discuss, negotiate, and decide on which YA title to order each month, and then watching them tear through the Barnes and Noble boxes, unbelievably excited to hold their books.
Remembering how students in my classes suddenly liked English, and reading, when I was able to circulate retired club books into literature circle options, when I was able to design grammar and vocabulary lessons to build their skills using the books they had chosen to read. Remembering tracking their reading data (ThinkLinkLearn predictive assessments) when I applied for National Board Certification, and nearly falling out of my seat at Applebees—Excel documents strewn across my bar top—when I saw the gains in the reading sub-domains after just one month of literature circles.
Remembering when the Moo Moo Book Club kids taped posters of their favorite books all over the school—totally taking ownership of their books by taping “recommended by” plaques beneath each poster—and how after that, non-club kids would stop by my room and ask to borrow a book. Remembering Teen Read Week of 2008 when the 130 book club kids marched through the school, boom box blaring, tossing bookmarks through the Ag. department, the Science and Math wing, the Freshman hall, and the Board of Education building, dancing, chanting “Moo Moo Book Club,” proudly sporting their recommended book posters on strings around their necks. Remembering the way it felt to post the newspaper articles about the club on my walls: the one about taking my club to Virginia Tech, where Nikki Giovanni gave the book club a private writing workshop after reading her book Blues for all the Changes; the one article in the state newspaper that discussed my having gotten the prestigious grant; and the one about the club’s “Jewish Culture Project,” where club members signed up to take Hebrew classes, decorate doors in facets of Jewish Culture, and attend service at a local synagogue, and then when Jewish, Holocaust-surviving author of Bondi’s Brother, Irving Roth, flew to our school for a book talk and assembly. And then, remembering the way I beamed when the Literacy Committee chair asked me to take her place because I had changed the notion of literacy at Montgomery County High.
Remembering the email that stopped it all. Two years ago this week. A parent whose child had chosen to read Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles, and how that parent sent an email to the superintendent, the board members, the principals, and me saying that I taught “soft pornography.” Remembering the way my stomach hurt when I read the email, how I cried and stayed up all night drafting a nine-page rebuttal that began with, “Literature is my life, and I take my career very seriously. I have worked extremely hard to get students to read, and the school is just beginning to see the impact of that.” Remembering getting called to my principal’s office the next day and berated for sending the rebuttal to everyone the parent had sent to (I did not send it to the parent). Remembering how my curriculum coach said she had thought I’d be fired before she even made it to school that morning. Remembering how stupid—how naïve—I was to send my rebuttal to the entire English department, thinking they needed to know that literature—our livelihood!—was under attack, thinking that we were a team and that we were supposed to support each other. Remembering the anger, the shock, that surged through me when two teachers in my department replied to that email to belittle me with how I had misrepresented “the classics” (which I had not done). Remembering what it felt like when I was asked to resign as the Literacy Committee chair—after only a month in the position—because “it just didn’t look good for the committee right now.”
After that email, my curriculum coach told me—in the principal’s office, with him present—that she had to beg the superintendent not to shut down the Moo Moo Book Club, and that she quoted him when she said, “one more problem with books and the club is gone.” I remember asking if he could do that. And I remember her laughing. Then on October 10, 2008, I received the edict—on signed letterhead: “After investigating the situation and discussing it with Ms. X, I have decided that all books in question in your classroom library and on the Moo Moo Club reading list will be pulled and reviewed…” Every book. Class and club. And yet not a single official challenge had been filed, as board policy required for a book to be suspended.
I remember asking students to turn their books back in, and their indignant, confused faces: An English teacher is taking a book from me? their eyebrows asked. I tried to go on with my group work matrix, using only classics, but students couldn’t read them without help. And that put them back into the precarious situation most of them were in before: being forced to read what they couldn’t and learning to hate reading because of it. So I stopped literature circles. I stopped the group matrix completely. And I taught the old-fashioned way I’d been taught. We all hated it.
Meanwhile, I began to get phone calls from fellow teachers saying they had heard from “extremely reliable sources” that I would be pink-slipped at the end of the year. I started to collect evidence then to protect myself. I kept a daily log. I printed emails. I watched my back. And I made a vow to follow every silly order I was given. Every. Last. One.
The principal took me off the Literacy Committee and had me write an extensive policy for the new Book Approval Committee. He approved the policy. Teachers and parents volunteered to serve. From November 2008 to May 2009, the committee read a book a week and held meetings to decide grade levels for each work. After six weeks or so, I had enough literature to start circles again. I’ve never seen kids so happy. By the fiscal end of the ’08-’09 school year, my classroom infrastructure was booming. And I was happy…even though it got back to me that two kids in my classes had been pulled in and privately interrogated about my class (the principal admitted to me that it was the curriculum coach’s idea to do this). Even this didn’t dampen my spirits, because the committee was winning!
But then, in May of 2009, Fields of Faith happened (sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, held on school property). The Monday after the event, two students came to my room crying, saying that the parent leader of their breakout session had preached against my books, specifically, Thick by Colin Neenan. Those two students said they felt ashamed that they hadn’t defended me and said they were sorry. I hugged them back, and told them it was okay. “The books are approved,” I told them as they soaked my shirt with tears. I reminded them of the implications from our Holocaust literature: resistance isn’t always armed. We keep going. We prove them wrong with test scores.
I have the video of that event, but as it was filmed outside, the wind blew my proof away. I do have an email from the parent who had allegedly preached against Thick (because of its implied language). This parent had asked the principal when the committee would discuss Thick. Instead of the principal telling this parent that the committee had already met and approved it, instead of offering for this parent to see the committee minutes tucked safely in a binder in his office, he must have told the parent to contact me. Meanwhile, the principal told me that the committee was to pull Thick and review it again. I told the committee, but they refused, and the principal backed down. But I should have seen the rest coming at that point. I really should have.
As instructed by my leaders, on my 2009-2010 syllabi I listed the books approved for optional reading at each grade level. It was my deciding year. I told myself if I could just hold on for one more year, I could get tenured and then really go after the problem, which was the arbitrary, ambiguous language of our policies. And because it was my deciding year, I went against my own morality and locked up the most controversial texts from ’08-’09: Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles and Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds.I promised them I would get them out again in August of 2010.
But on August 17, 2009, I got an email from a different parent (an FCA parent) who was concerned about my books within a week of school starting. A parent conference was scheduled. I went to that meeting with two bags loaded with classic and YA literature available as optional reading. With state and national standards supporting my work. With highlighted, detailed Excel documents showing student gains in reading from the previous school year. With at least five ALAN reviews on the books in question. With at least ten other articles that discussed choice in reading, literature circles, and young adult literature in the classroom. But as soon as the parents requested it, my principal disbanded the committee he had structured. He dissolved their rulings and promised these parents he’d start a new one—one that matched the board policy perfectly—to review the books again. I remained courteous and professional throughout the rest of the meeting…until I got to my car. I punched the steering wheel. I threw my purse into the floor, not even caring that everything spilled out. Then I cried. And I cried the whole way home.
Shortly after, on August 20, 2009, the principal emailed the entire high school faculty, as well as the district administrators, naming the new committee: the parent who made the newest string of complaints was on it. Four days later, I received an email saying two parents had “challenged these books to be read”: The Rapture of Canaan, Lessons from a Dead Girl, Twisted, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, What My Mother Doesn’t Know and What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. (Unwind by Neal Schusterman was added one week later). That very day, a reliable teacher friend came to my door. This person claimed to be in the office when two principals allegedly discussed the superintendent’s fresh command to remove me from the classroom. According to this source, he told my principal to honor my contract until the end of the year but to put me in as the In-School Suspension teacher. My principal allegedly refused because of my test scores. The teacher who told me this had to watch my class while I went to the bathroom to cry. (I realize as I write this how much I actually cried throughout this situation.)
As you can tell, these parents had gone down my syllabus and challenged every book they felt like challenging, whether those books had even been offered as options yet or not. The books were suspended from me (again) that day, August 20, before a single official challenge was filed. And so the main parents didn’t do all the challenging, they recruited other parents, whose children had never been in my classes, some of whose children were in elementary school, to either talk to the superintendent or file challenges against my books. Shortly after the establishment of the new committee, Lessons from a Dead Girl was filed against. It was approved. Then, on August 28, 2009, Unwind was filed against. It was approved. On September 15, 2009, Twisted was filed against. It was approved. Finally, on October 15, 2009, Deadline was filed against. It was approved. But I never got to use those books again. I was told that I couldn’t use them because the parents had indicated their plans to file appeals to the superintendent (who, during this, allegedly spoke to church youth groups in the county about how he was getting these books out of schools for them; several of my students claimed to be in attendance for these special visits). As far as I know (I have copies of the other challenges) official challenges were never filed for the remaining three books. I was instructed not to use them, though, so we “wouldn’t get caught with our pants down.”
That’s when the letters to the editor started. The entire community suddenly had opinions of me and my books. As a result, the faculty got heated. Students came to me several times saying what this teacher and that had said about me and the “godless” books I forced students to read to “advance the ALA’s gay propaganda.” Yes, a student said that to me. Several district administrators, teachers, and lunch ladies stopped speaking to me after the letters in the paper. And one Sunday, while working in my room after church, I heard mumbling in the hallway. Parents were praying in the hallway outside my door. Defeated, I retreated to my room where I proceeded to work with Jimmy Buffett blaring in the background.
On September 24, 2009, I was pulled out of my classroom and taken to the library, where I had two hours to create a detailed list of all books available to students both in my classroom as well as in the English department library. But that wasn’t all; in that two-hour slot, I was also instructed to defend my literature circle strategy (which I had already done in my nine-page rebuttal). This one had to be more detailed, linking every literature circle role (as defined by Harvey Daniels and then adapted for AP classes)to state and national standards. It was at that point that Jo Knowles had had enough. I had made contact with her and David Gill in 2008, and though they were both ready to rally support then, I begged them to stay quiet so I wouldn’t lose my job. I gave Jo my permission to contact David Gill again. He responded instantly, while I typed madly on my report, inviting me to speak with him at the ALAN Workshop of 2009. Jo also contacted Laurie Anderson, who then contacted me to request my presence at her table for the ALAN breakfast, for which she was the keynote. Then, on September 29, 2009, just before Banned Books Week, my principal emailed to tell the faculty that we were not to promote, discuss, or celebrate Banned Books Week in any manner, including by wearing the To Kill a Mockingbird shirts many teachers had purchased from the librarian. When the email wound up in the community newspaper, the principal retracted his edict regarding “Book Banning Week.” He said that events could go on as planned but we needed to make sure to “respect all of our students values” because our focus at “M.C.H.S is student achievement.”
When I returned from a three-day trip to Washington D.C. with the Moo Moo Book Club kids (to the Holocaust Memorial Museum), my classroom was a mess. That weekend, I had no babysitter, so I had to take my toddler to school with me to plan for the upcoming week. My then two-year-old destroyed my room even further, decorating the floor with crayons, colored pencils, and dry-erase markers. The stress on me already insurmountable, I just couldn’t take it. I gathered him up and left my room insanely messy. That was Saturday evening. I came to school early the following work day. I cleaned my room and finished planning. But during my planning period, my principal came to me with three pages of printed pictures of my room with crayons, colored pencils, and markers everywhere. When I asked why someone was in my room taking pictures over the weekend, pointing out when those photos had to have been taken, he admitted that he’d been sent by someone higher up to warn me. He confided in me then that there was a faction after me and they were gonna “get my ass one way or another” and that I had to “walk on eggshells.” I was not written up, but I think the intention was to bully me.
After that, Jo Knowles, David Macinnis Gill, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Chris Crutcher fought extra hard. They brought my story to light in national communities. Laurie had me stand up at the ALAN breakfast as she referenced my story. And afterward, she introduced me to several people who have continued to support me (including Jim Blasingame who flew to Kentucky to present with me in Febrary 2010). Laurie even had me tag along for the Penguin Young Readers Group dinner that night, which was amazing. Following ALAN 2009, these authors asked their online supporters to write my superintendent, pleading for the return of my twice-approved books. The authors themselves, and even one Candlewick editor, wrote to my superintendent. Chris Crutcher wrote to the editor of the local paper and came to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky to hold a community discussion (that only one of the nine English teachers and one of the other faculty attended). Also during this time, Ellen Hopkins and Neal Shusterman commented on blogs and the online newspaper sites, the National Coalition Against Censorship drafted a letter to the superintendent, and several parents and students sent letters and emails.
And as people learned of my story, they began to blog. Some of these blogs, however, did not help me. A post, which I perceived to be patronizing, on the Safe Libraries blog (which now follows my blog) heralded my superintendent as a hero while seemingly characterizing me as one with good intentions who just needed to work within the curriculum, which I had been.
Several authors engaged the superintendent in argument in the comments section of this blog, and as I read them from home back then, I felt like two women fought inside me. Comment. Don’t comment. Comment. Don’t Comment. I chose not to comment. And I was so thankful for the supporters who commented when I couldn’t. But the night I found the fallacious entry about me on a blog called, “Vital Remnants,” I was not so strong. After bawling because of the uninformed, propagandized, and hurtful statements about me personally, I stayed up until around two a.m. drafting an anonymous comment. As I could never find it after that night, I have always assumed my comment to have been deleted by the blog host.
I spent the next months in a blur. I did the best I could in the classroom, but the atmosphere of literature circles had changed. The students were angry, and I was, too. Our innocent and organic reading circles had turned into jaded therapy sessions. When I realized that, I put an end to my group matrix, collected what titles were still circulating, and resigned from my job.
Though I worked until the end of the school year, my husband took a job in North Dakota with plans for the kids and me to follow. I flew out there, toured the wonderful school district, and met the principal. The principal was so excited to show me around and introduced me to everyone as “Risha Mullins-the-National-Board-Certified-English-Teacher!” I began paperwork for a North Dakota license. An English position miraculously opened there. I put my house up for sale. I figured out where my sons would go to school. I began to research North Dakota state standards. I scheduled for a phone interview. But when that day came, I was asked a question about the censorship mess; I realized that I had most likely been googled, and I knew before I hung up the phone that I hadn’t gotten the job.
I remained unemployed until July of this year. I finally got a job back in my hometown—two hours from my house that never sold, and 24 hours from my husband who is still on contract and can’t come back to Kentucky. My sons and I have moved into my mother’s basement for the time being.
So here I sit, my Dr. Pepper long gone, remembering, with a sick mixture of anger, resentment, relief, and sympathy for the both pitiful people who ran me away, and the students who lost so much.
Last month, Montgomery County’s test scores came out. Reading went down six points. As I sit here right now, still remembering, I think of how my students’ predictive assessment scores had been amazing all year before the test. According to the data, my classes had surpassed the Honors-track sophomores’ reading scores. I’m remembering the discussions I had with my classes about peaceful resistance, about trying on the tests because it was our only way of showing the district that reading YA worked. And I’m remembering how just last week I cried again, selfishly, when I allowed myself to consider all the horrible things people were probably saying about me and my “pornographic” literature and what it did to their precious test scores and how YA is nothing but fluff and has no place in a college-bound curriculum. I allowed myself to wonder if they were thinking of the variables that went into those reading scores? If they were considering the gaping irony of accountability in reading when so much had been done to prevent it? If they were considering the impact my resignation may have had on the sophomores taking the test, that my decision to leave may have personified that they had lost? And if they were thinking of me with compassion, with any consideration for what all I may have lost?
As I’m remembering the hell I’ve been through in this profession, I take responsibility for letting my students down. I showed them what it looks like to run from trouble instead of face it, especially after all our talk on resistance. The one woman inside me is ashamed of my decision to leave, even though I may have been fired if I hadn’t made that decision. But the other woman says that, selfish or not, I did the right thing for me, for my family, and, ultimately, for all my students to come. And I think in ten years, when I remember the witch hunt that nearly ruined me, I’ll be glad I listened to the latter and made the decisions I did.