Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.
Book banning is nothing new for public schools. In the 1980s, I was teaching Lord of the Flies. One day, I took a call from a grandpa convinced I was ruining his granddaughter’s life by introducing her to characters like Piggy, Jack, and the gang.
According to Grandpa, the book was porno about a bunch of boys stranded on an island who become savages. I was happy—at least he understood the basic plot.
But my happiness was short-lived when he called me “a dirty, commie liberal who shouldn’t be teaching.” I was 23 and didn’t know any communists, but knew I’d soon be fired.
Just as I started to respond about the free exchange of ideas in class and as the imaginary fife and drum music revved up as background music, the phone went dead.
I was furious; Grandpa hung up.
But I discovered that in my frantic pacing, the cord had disconnected from the phone. I had hung up on him. I quickly plugged it back in to apologize, hoping I could finish my stirring speech. He was gone.
Now I knew I was fired.
But my principal visited that class a couple of times, got bored, and even dozed off once. I let him sleep. He didn’t come back.
The difference is that in the 1980s, Grandpa didn’t have the majority party in both chambers of the Iowa legislature and the governor on his side, passing laws that gave him power to silence discussion about those stranded boys.
Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed Senate File 496, a Republican wish list for public schools that is horrible, and in some ways vague. This new law attacks public schools in many ways. The educational family must work together to keep GOP wishes from becoming our nightmares.
Specifically, part of the new law requires school libraries to stock only "age-appropriate" material, and prohibits "any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act" in school libraries and classrooms, except for religious texts like the Bible, Torah, and Qur’an.
Simple to write. Hard to interpret.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with parents deciding what their children should read. But there’s something terribly wrong with parents deciding for every child in the public school what should be read, especially if that decision is based on hearing selected passages read on AM radio or “Fox Entertain the Base News.”
Educators can’t wait for the scream machine to kick in. The time to plan is now.
Find some of the many parents who want books in the classroom that educate and challenge kids. Unlock those voices.
You already have board policies detailing procedures on removing books. This summer is the time to review and strengthen those procedures. For example, parents who want to remove a book need to have read the entire book, not just the passage they are objecting to. Find teachers and parents who will confront the complainers with questions. Don’t overreact.
Agree as an administrative team on the steps you’ll take when book-banning parents are at your doorstep.
Don’t overreact. If one parent is complaining about a book, don’t immediately fold like an old lawn chair. Use the process established by the school board. I know you want to avoid conflict, but use the process.
Don’t start tossing books just because you believe they may become a problem. They might not be. Get support from your principal before there’s a book banning storm. Don’t overreact.
President Dwight Eisenhower—no liberal—said it best 70 years ago: "Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing the evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go into your library and read every book [...]."