Monty School Board Attendees Question the Assignment of an Agender Hate Crime Book and a Memoir
By Anna Reinalda | March 31, 2022
Debate sparked at the March 15 school board meeting about whether a controversial book was appropriate reading material for tenth grade English students. Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus recounts the true story of an agender teenager who was the victim of a hate crime in which another student set them (the agender teen) on fire while riding a bus.
Early in the meeting, Montgomery High School Principal Heather Pino-Beattie addressed the board and audience. Recalling her earliest experiences as an educator in Trenton, Pino- Beattie said she learned early on the importance of equitable treatment and representation in schools. “We have a duty … to equip our students with the language, the analytical mobility, and the empathy necessary to navigate the worldly experiences that they will encounter,” she said. “This is not a controversial issue, this is life.”
Pino-Beattie’s address at the meeting served as a follow up to an email school administrators sent to the parents of MHS students, explaining the school’s decision to include the book in the curriculum. An important aspect of the tenth-grade English curriculum is to answer the question, “What is the truth?” Because the book explores both sides of the hate crime, it engages students on differing perspectives, lenses, and identities, Pino-Beattie said.
However, the response to the assignment of the book was not wholly positive. Pino-Beattie shared several email responses thanking the school for making a point of including The 57 Bus, but noted some less appreciative emails were also sent her way. 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 our world is constantly changing, meaning we need to become educated on social topics, however I believe these topics are truly controversial and should be kept out of the classrooms,” she said. “We deserve the right to choose what we learn about.”
Jernigan’s mother Ania followed Misia’s comment, saying, “I read The 57 Bus. There’s a lot of sexual content, vulgar content, and some things I scold my children for doing at home. I think it’s okay to learn about these topics … but we can address these topics by choosing perhaps a little bit more language-appropriate commentary.”
Board President Zelda Spence- Wallace promised the issue of the book would be revisited. “I personally have not read The 57 Bus, but I have been moved to do so as a result of events that have taken place in the past week,” she said. “We will follow up with you in cooperation with the Montgomery High School staff and principal.”
MHS English teacher Diana Mazaurieta, who specified their pronouns as they/she, and who is the leader of the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, thanked the board profusely for giving teachers the freedom to choose the books they bring to their classrooms. Mazaurieta emphasized the importance of making space for uncomfortable conversations, and that uncomfortable does not necessarily mean wrong.
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“How else are we going to learn to be better to one another — to build community — if we can’t be uncomfortable sometimes in our conversation?” Mazaurieta asked. “Thank you for letting us have that space in our classrooms and in our lives.” Mazaurieta noted that they were not the teacher who assigned The 57 Bus, and had only read it in the past week to get up-to-speed with the controversy.
Another Montgomery parent, Karen Anderson, attended the school board meeting to complain that the ninth grade assigned reading, 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 that a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe was portrayed as a mockery, and that the reading level was akin to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Multiple online sources listed Tomboy as appropriate for students in eighth through twelfth grades.
These debates, against the backdrop of a national outcry over McMinn County Board of Education’s decision to ban Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus, are more than eye-opening, and bring to light questions of censorship in schools. Pino-Beattie’s email address to parents offers guidance to parents who are struggling with the literature selected in school: “We view the inclusion of The 57 Bus as a wonderful opportunity for our students to explore life from the perspectives of individuals with whom they may identify, or with whom they have little familiarity,” Pino-Beattie wrote. “I encourage you to ... have conversations with your children that are rooted in kindness and respect, reflect the values of your family, and instill hope for a better future.”