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It may sound weird, but the worst part of my eighth grade year was also the best and most defining. What used to be the simple structure of my mindset unraveled early last September.
The crisp autumn winds had already made their appearance as I strode through the nearly one hundred and fifty year old neighborhood in Alexandria, Minnesota. I suppose in most cites, it would be called a suburb, but that would be an overstatement about our town’s size. I probably looked extremely atypical; an eager and alert teenager hurrying down the block very early in the day. Being a morning person and a self-proclaimed “certified nerd”, I was not at all reluctant to get to school that Monday. A gust of wind from a passing hunter green Ford pickup truck scattered my short, light brown hair in front of my face as I rounded the corner of the one and only elementary school.
“Casey! Hey, wait up!” beckoned my long time best friend, (that’s right, best friend, not boyfriend) Micah LaRue, from across the two-lane road. I stood patiently on the curb as he shuffled through the cross walk behind a gaggle of third graders, wearing one of his many Wisconsin Packers themed T-shirts.
“What’s up Cheese Head?” I muttered in a matter of fact tone.
“Nothing much Super Geek.” he responded. However immature it was, this was our routine.
The obnoxious hum of chatty adolescents bounced off the walls as we filed into the classroom. I assumed it would be another mundane first period in reading class, or the more sophisticated name the Douglas County School District had adopted, Lit. Study. Boy, was I wrong. The first domino that triggered this whole insane chain of events was knocked down when my teacher, Mrs. Von der Heide, began passing back one of our first assignments of the year. She stood stiffly in front of her podium.
“Boys and girls,” she said uncomfortably, “before I hand back your summaries, I must say that I am a bit disappointed in the books some of you have chosen. I would prefer it in the future if you’d all stick to the library’s selection.” An explosion of sighs and eye rolling erupted in the room. It was well known in Alex that the school’s library was severely under stocked and hadn’t been updated for at least a few years. Not that I didn’t enjoy haunting it’s aisles. (Was it not where I’d come across my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird?) But the majority of my peers didn’t appreciate the musty-smelling pages of the classics, so they mostly resorted to visiting the Barns & Nobel in St. Cloud or Minneapolis. In previous years, teachers had actually promoted these random acts of literary commerce, so hearing the opposite was slightly odd. But I didn’t take the comment to heart. I just thought it was because one kid decided to push the limits and write about some graphic romance novel.
“What books are you talkin’ about?” called out Danny Baker. He must have had the same idea that I did, and being the class smart aleck, decided to make that thought known. Amid a stream of infantile snickers, Mrs. Von der Heide looked as if she was being very careful with her words.
“Well…I’m just not sure that everyone’s parents would approve of certain stories in public education.” She smiled quickly and then stifled it, clearly pleased with her phrasing. That was when things started to get concerning. She appeared nervous, like if she said anything directly it would pull the pin out of a hand grenade. Unfortunately, looking uncertain in front of Jr. High kids never ends well.
“How come? Aren’t we supposed to read stuff at school?” jeered someone in the back row.
“Yes, you are, and you will.” said Mrs. Von der Heide, getting slightly ticked off. “But some of you will need to see me after class so I can suggest a different book. End of discussion.” Although I was kind of taken aback by her unusual defensiveness, I thought nothing more of the matter because I was safely engrossed in The Hobbit at the time. Until lunch.
By then, about half the seventh through ninth graders had already had Lit. Study, and all of us knew about the inexplicable book burning.
“That is so messed up,” vented Micah as he put his tray down with more force than necessary. “I just started reading it, and it’s not like it’s anything bad, only Saints of Augustine , and she wouldn’t even tell me what was wrong with it! There is no way I’m switching books now.”
“Well, when you figure out why it’s so taboo, let me borrow it, okay?” I said semi jokingly. The whole subject was starting to make me feel uneasy. From what I heard that day, our conversation was not unique. Left and right, people were making pacts to not give up their books. While my defiant side enjoyed the idea of standing up to authority, my better judgment was that this was a hopeless battle that could only cause trouble. I had always been one of those kids who would do anything to get approval, especially from adults. It wasn’t exactly easy or pleasant to question thirteen-and-a-half years of thinking. But this was our First Amendment right being squelched right within a government controlled entity, which I passionately saw as wrong, and I wanted very badly to do something about it. I was conflicted.
There really isn’t much to say about the next day of school, except for that the principal visited the first hour Lit. Study class to explain that we had two options; choose an acceptable book, or flunk the assignment. I have since been told that the class got a little rowdy after he left, but I personally didn’t notice it. All I remember was staring down at my pale hands while my stomach filled with the nauseating sensation of impending dread. I was helpless and hindered because of my age. I felt so strongly about this issue, but now I was too terrified to do anything about it. I hated myself for being such a perfectionist that the concept of failing (or supporting other people in failing is more like it, in my moment of freaking out, I’d forgotten that my book wasn’t being challenged.) My body shook with irregular breathing as I started to cry because I felt stupid for caring so much about this, as well as oppressed, scared, angry and a whole lot of who knows what else. I bit my tongue to keep silent. I didn’t even reason the bell had rung until a girl in the next class tapped my shoulder and told me I was in her seat.
Later that evening, I found my slightly less distraught self slumped over one of the mismatched chairs on Micah’s front porch. A frustrated mood lurked in the cracks of the old, whitewashed deck.
“You okay?” I asked in a somber, hesitant voice.
“Yeah… just thinking.” he said flatly, staring hard into the top branches of his family’s elm tree. “I, um… I was reading this thing on the computer last night.” That’s Micah for you- when in doubt, Google it. “I read about this guy in California who’s school banned a bunch of books, so they had some huge organized protest- picket signs, the whole thing- and a ton of people found out, so the school changed their mind.” There was a long pause. He knew how I had reacted in class that day, and I did my best to help him understand why. But I thought I’d communicated my trepidation of any form of activism.
“I’m guessing that you want to do that then, huh?” I said, cringing at the thought.
“Well, yeah, I brought it up, didn’t I? I mean, sure, we might get in some trouble, but that’s the worst that could happen. And we’d probably get a lot of participation too, not like that many people are actually serious about it, but they’d still want to be rebellious. It could work.” he looked up at me with his I’m-Mr.-Persuasive half grin. I sighed. He did have a point.
“True, but you know how things are, people will start talking about it and the whole thing will get blown out of proportion. Plus, we could get suspended or expelled, okay maybe not expelled, but we would get in trouble. Not to mention of what our parents would think, we’re not exactly regulars in the principal’s office.”
“Casey, you know I’m gonna do it with or without you. This is my battle too. Besides, you’re acting like we’re going to rob a bank.” he replied smugly.
“Okay, fine. I’ll help you.” I mumbled almost inaudibly. There was some kind of odd calm in knowing I’d surrendered.
After that, things quieted down for a few days. We weren’t really doing any class work with our individual reading books at the moment, and our weekly reading journals weren’t due until Friday. Micah and I discussed holding off on the protest, but we decided to wait it out a while. The shock of the year occurred the following Monday.
When I got home, there was an envelope from the school addressed to my parents resting with the other mail on the kitchen table. Not thinking that it wasn’t actually my mail, I opened it.
Parent(s)/Guardian(s) of Casey Owens :
As an excelling school, we strive to do what is best for our students, and try hard to raise them to be educated Americans with a strong set of family values. I am proud to be principal of a student body so interested in books. But as the responsible adults, we must weed out reading material with undesirable content. In order to help us protect our children, we have composed a list of unacceptable literature, so that you do not accidentally provide them access to such literature. The only reason we have decided to remove them from the classroom is that they feature topics that young people cannot yet handle, or present world views that should not be condoned. Thank you for you cooperation.
Attached was a list that included Crank, Keeping You a Secret, Forever, From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Talk, Annie on My Mind, and several others that I don’t recall at the moment. My heart sank. Most of the books made the list because they dealt with sex, drugs, and/or LGBT issues. Micah and I, no matter how many other people we recruited, had almost no chance at gaining any adult sympathizers. Alexandria is a very small, religiously oriented town. Almost everyone I know, including myself, is a Lutheran, and a few are Mormon or Roman Catholic. In every election since who knows when, the Republican candidates have won by a landslide. Needless to say, the vast majority of the region holds ultra conservative views on social issues. I almost emailed Micah to call off the protest, but for some naïve reason, I didn’t.
By the next morning, just about every kid in Alexandria over the age of twelve knew about the act of civil disobedience planned for Wednesday after school, and a few were actually willing to commit it. But I still wonder if anyone was as concerned about the possible uproar as I was. For then next forty-eight hours I went through the motions of everyday life, including stopping by ay Viking Office Supplies to pick up a large, fluorescent piece of poster paper. But in the back of my mind, I constantly worried about the next day.
Finally, the three o’clock dismissal bell chimed, and an unusual amount of upper-grade students gravitated towards the sidewalk directly across the street, instead of taking their typical paths home. One by one, all roughly ten of us pulled out homemade signs and banners voicing our disapproval of the book ban. I could hear my heartbeat resonating in my eardrums, and the flaming orange paper I held shivered in the grasp of my hands that refused to hold still. For the first few minutes, or it could have been hours, nothing happened. Some of the younger kids gawked and pointed at us. Passing vehicles slowed to look at, whether in awe or disgust, I don’t know, the congregation of defiant young adults. A few teachers and the Vice Principal came outside to monitor the situation. Then everything started moving in slow motion.
A couple seventh grade boys took out a copy of the Banned Books List, and proceeded igniting them with a cigarette lighter. No, this is really wrong I thought. We specifically planned a peaceful protest! The pages caught fire quickly and floated to the ground like burning, ivory leaves. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breath. Sensing the inevitable wrath of the administration, the bulk of our party bolted. All that was left was me, Micah, and the ironically, literally burning book list. Their whistles wouldn’t stop ringing in my ears.
My mind was on overdrive as I sat in the unfamiliar territory of the dark, hard wood bench in the front office, just like the ones you always see in movies. I knew I should have trusted my intuition, and now I was kicking myself. Logistically, I knew that since it was not my fault someone brought a lighter, and nothing got too out of hand, I was probably off the hook. But for a girl who’s only ever been in trouble for neglecting homework, this was serious business. I was fairly numb through out my questioning with Mr. Shultz, and I told him all that there was to tell, except for that the protest was Micah’s idea. I got off with only three days detention for “being involved with a riot.”
Somehow, I wasn’t capable of saying much else for the rest of the night, and dinner with my family was horrifically shameful and awkward.
I forced myself to survive the next day of school, belittled and dejected. Absolutely nothing had been accomplished by us speaking out. Each class period seemed to take forever. Micah, however, was completely untroubled.
“What are you so happy about?” I snipped, annoyed that he wasn’t suffering with me.
“You’ll see, you’ll see…” was all the answer he ever gave me.
About six o’clock that evening, I was moping around the house, a side effect of my first detention. Then the phone rang. It was Micah.
“Quick, quick! Turn on channel nine!” he ordered over the receiver. Perplexed, I did as I was told.
“What for? It’s just the weather.” I said slowly, still not catching on.
“No, shut up. Give it a second.” We waited silently through two stories about a fatal car wreck in Avon and an upcoming parade.
“What do Judy Blume, Alex Sanchez, and Laurie Halse Anderson have in common?” said the blonde anchorwoman like it was the most critically interesting thing in the world. “Aside from being renowned authors, their books, along with many others have been banned at Alexandria Middle School.” I practically fell off the couch. “The school published an Unacceptable Literature list last weekend. Phillip Shultz, the principal said he chose to ban them because they expressed, quote; “…world views that should not be condoned.” Several students held a protest yesterday, but so far, the school has not changed it’s stance.”
“No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Mike, you didn’t do that. No, you didn’t. This is just gonna make things worse, it’s not worth it. Why would you call a news station? Well, I am done. You’re on your own buddy, I’m not doing this anymore.” I rambled as my brain spiraled in a million directions.
“Are you finished?’ asked Micah with a hint of humor in his voice. “Don’t you get it?” he pressed. I was to stunned to reply. “There’s pretty much no one here that would let us read the books, but now everyone who watched the news tonight in Minnesota knows the only reason they banned them is because of their own political and religious opinions. We have a chance now.”
Although I didn’t quite believe him at the time, I now recognize it to be true. We had a chance, and that’s all that mattered. Soon after the newscast aired, the school district held a board meeting. They ruled that teachers could choose to not use the books in classroom instruction, but couldn’t prevent students from reading anything if their parents consented. Hearing that was one of the highlights of the school year. This whole crazy experience has taught me that you can stand up to injustice, and no matter how much of an underdog you are, you just might win.