Montgomery residents question school board on appropriateness of two gender-related books

By Anna Reinalda | April 4, 2022

A debate erupted at a recent school board meeting over whether two controversial books were appropriate reading material for students at Montgomery High School.

At Dashka Slater The 57 bus tells the true story of a teenage agender who was the victim of a hate crime in which another student set him (the teenage agender) on fire while he was driving a bus. The second book, Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince, has been criticized for being both “below reading level” and “insulting to the Catholic faith”.

At the start of the March 15 meeting, Montgomery High School principal Heather Pino-Beattie addressed the council and audience. Recalling her early experiences as an educator in Trenton, Pino-Beattie said she learned early on the importance of fair treatment and representation in schools.

“We have a duty…to equip our students with the language, analytical mobility and empathy to navigate the worldly experiences they will encounter,” she said. “It’s not a controversial issue, it’s life.”

Pino-Beattie’s address at the meeting served as a follow-up to an email that school administrators sent to parents of MHS students, explaining the school’s decision to include the book in the program.

Above: Author Liz Prince with a copy of Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir. The book was awarded to 9th grade MHS students.

MHS principal Pino-Beattie explained that an important part of the high school English curriculum is answering the question, “What is the truth?” Because the book (Bus 57) explores both sides of hate crime, it engages students with different perspectives, lenses and identities, Pino-Beattie said.

However, the response to the book’s attribution has not been entirely positive.

(Above: Bus 57 has been assigned to MHS grade 10 students.)

Pino-Beattie shared several email responses thanking the school for making sure to include The 57 busbut noted that less complimentary emails had also been sent to him.

MHS student Misia Jernigan approached the podium during the public comment session to tell the board that a rift had formed between her classmates.

“I understand that our world is constantly changing which means we need to educate ourselves on social topics, but I think those topics are really controversial and should be kept out of the classroom,” she said. declared. “We deserve the right to choose what we learn.”

Jernigan’s mother, Ania “Anna” Wolecka-Jernigan, followed up Misia’s comment, saying, “I read The 57 bus. There is a lot of sexual content, vulgar content and some things that I scold my kids at home. I think it’s good to know more about these topics… but we can approach these topics by choosing perhaps a comment a little more appropriate to the language.

Board chairwoman Zelda Spence-Wallace promised the book issue would be revisited.

“Personally, I have not read The 57 bus, but I was driven to do so as a result of events that took place last week,” she said. “We will follow up with you in cooperation with the staff and principal of Montgomery High School.”

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MHS English teacher Diana Mazaurieta, who specified their pronouns as they/their/them, and who is the leader of the high school’s gay straight alliance, profusely thanked the council for giving teachers the freedom to choose the books they bring into their classrooms.

Mazaurieta stressed the importance of making room for uncomfortable conversations, and that uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.

“Otherwise, how are we going to learn to be better with each other – to build a community – if we can’t sometimes be awkward in our conversation? Mazaurieta asked. “Thank you for allowing us to have this space in our classrooms and in our lives.”

Mazaurieta noted that it was not the teacher who assigned The 57 busand had only read it last week to keep abreast of the controversy.

Another Montgomery parent, Karen Anderson, attended the school board meeting to complain that the assigned reading in ninth grade, Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince, was both below reading level and insulting to her as a member of the Catholic faith.

She said a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe was portrayed as a mockery and the reading level was akin to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Several online sources listed Tomboy where applicable for students in grades eight through twelfth.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Story became a bestseller on Amazon, after a school board in Tennessee banned it.

American cartoonist Art Spiegelmann published Maus in 1986. He recounts how his Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in Poland and depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.

10 school board members from McMinn County, Tennessee agreed remove Maus of the eighth-grade curriculum, citing ‘foul and objectionable language’ and sketches of nude women they deemed inappropriate for 13-year-old students, according to the meeting minutes,

These debates, amid a national outcry over the McMinn County School Board’s decision to ban Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Mausare more than revealing and bring to light issues of censorship in schools.

Pino-Beattie’s email address to parents offers advice for those struggling with selected literature at school:

“We are considering the inclusion of The 57 bus as a wonderful opportunity for our students to explore life from the perspective of individuals they may identify with or are unfamiliar with,” Pino-Beattie wrote.

“I encourage you to … have conversations with your children that are rooted in kindness and respect, reflect your family values, and inspire hope for a better future.” ■

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Grover Z. Barnes