Defying a Draconian Directive

Defying a Draconian Directive

by Lindsey Whittington

If you have ever read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or watched the movie Signs, then you can appreciate how a string of seemingly isolated events can somehow be interconnected and serendipitously land you in the perfect predicament at just the right time. The Greek word for this occurrence is Kairos, which translates to a critical or opportune moment. This is the true story of how my professional and personal journey collided to cathartically transform my life forever. I became the argonaut that I had always fancied—someone who takes great risk in search of great reward. I realize in retrospect that this journey actually fits the mold for a quest such as I used to teach in my advanced placement literature class. Thomas Foster outlines the characteristics of a quest in his book, How to Read Literature Like A Professor. Foster asserts that there must always be a quester, a place to go, a reason to go there, obstacles along the way, and the real reason for the quest (which is usually self-knowledge). Mr. Foster, I certainly learned a lot from this experience.

I, obviously, am the quester. The first facet of my epic journey began with motherhood. I am blessed with my daughter Madilyn and my son Kipton who are currently in 4th and 2nd grades respectively. Although I love to have fun and consider myself both spontaneous and carefree, I am fierce when it comes to my children. As most parents do, I want them to succeed me in every way possible—and I feel that the key to this journey is the foundation for a solid education. Thus, it is a no-brainer that I would go against any faction that would threaten their intellectual advancement.

The second part of a quest is a place to go. Dixie County is a small, rural community in the heart of Florida’s nature coast. The population is so sparse that there is only the need for one middle school and one high school. As a consequence, there is only cause for one certified media specialist in the entire county. From 2013-2018, that high school media specialist was me. Along with teaching advanced placement literature and occasionally advanced placement language, my home was the school library and my job was to see to it that students were given ample opportunity and access to various forms of both print and digital media and that they were encouraged to read for pleasure as well as to expand their minds to new realms of thought that may have challenged their existing beliefs. In 2016, I was also promoted to head of the English department; these dual roles carried with them the large responsibility of not only protecting the library’s collection, but also of facilitating the selection of novels to be used in the classrooms as well as the summer reading selection. I took this job seriously and worked very closely with the English and reading teachers to select novels of literary merit that have been taught for years across the nation.

The third part of the quest is a reason to go on the journey. Outside my professional responsibilities, I passionately served as president of the Dixie County Education Association where I vowed to protect the rights and working conditions of my fellow teachers. I served in this capacity from 2015-2018 and in that time, I learned how to find my voice and to oppose the norm even if the opposition were my superiors. If a situation warranted someone to stand up and speak out for what is right, then I became notorious for being that voice.

The fourth element of a quest is the obstacle that I had to face along my way. The obstacle and my triumph over it are the heart of my story. In the fall of 2017, a parent complained to the superintendent about her child having to read Earnest Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying, stating that it contained inappropriate subject matter. The principal met with myself, the reading coach, and our English teachers and asked us to discuss the novel’s literary merit as well as put forth consideration as to whether the book should be pulled from the curriculum. We discussed the sensitive material that had sparked this debate and discovered that it came from two simple words: brown nipple. The 9th grade English teacher who was currently teaching the novel explained that she had students skip that page, but that students being immature, some decided to read the page anyway. By the time of the superintendent’s inquisition, the teacher was already 100 pages past that scene. We unanimously decided to keep the novel in the curriculum because its themes of recognizing injustice and facing responsibility far outweighed the one page that the teacher skipped.

I thought the matter was resolved, however, shortly after our meeting an email was sent to all school employees notifying us that a directive was issued by the superintendent of Dixie County, Florida—one that threatened the very nature of intellectual freedom. The words of the directive are as follows: “As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community.” This directive essentially banned the reading and even housing of library books, textbooks, and other instructional materials that were currently used in Dixie District Schools.

According to the American Library Association, intellectual freedom is defined as, “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored.”

As you know, the importance of reading is that one can learn about the past in order to not repeat the same mistakes in the future. Much of history isn’t pleasant; it is wrought with racism, gender inequality, and violence. You will be hard pressed to find a single textbook, novel, or work of classical literature that doesn’t touch on one of these sensitive topics. However, isn’t the point of education to teach students how to think, not what to think? If we shy away from subjects that are uncomfortable or censor texts that may use offensive language that are historically accurate, we are doing a disservice to our students because we are not doing our jobs to prepare them for the real world.

In order to be subordinate to the superintendent’s directive, the district would have to remove all of Shakespeare, anything dealing with the Holocaust, classics dealing with racism such as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even must remove the Bible, because it uses instances of adultery, murder, and deceit in order to convey its moral lessons. Ironically, this directive was issued just weeks before Banned Books Week which is celebrated by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and supported by schools and libraries across the country. This week stresses the importance of exposing students to challenging materials in order to engage them in meaningful conversations, teach them moral lessons, and ultimately empower students with the ability to think for themselves. The solution here is not to ban these books, but rather to use these books properly in order to do our jobs as teachers and raise the next generation of independent thinkers.

In this case, Dixie School District violated their own challenged materials policy. There was no public hearing regarding the challenged text in question. There was a committee that that met and unanimously decided to continue teaching the book A Lesson Before Dying that initially prompted the challenge; however, the result of this unanimous decision was that the directive was issued the following day. As library media specialist, English department head, and president of Dixie County’s teachers’ union, I fought against this draconian directive. Courageous students and I spoke out at the schoolboard meeting and passionately asked that the superintendent rescind this policy. A “literary blitz” ensued in which the school board members and superintendent were bombarded with letters by organizations from across the country, including one by former Florida Association for Media in Education president, Elizabeth Zdrodowski, who stated, “If we expect students to grow into well-rounded, empathetic, intelligent, and creative adults who can contribute to our society in healthy ways, we must not smother their exposure to great literature, diverse ideas, and various forms of expression.”

The union filed a grievance for the violation of academic freedom and the failure to comply with existing school board policy. The superintendent denied the grievance so the union then filed a cease a desist to the policy. The superintendent responded and agreed to work with the union to create a committee that will oversee curriculum materials. On November 1st, the school board members shot down the superintendent’s proposal to modify the existing challenge and instructional materials policies and instead took the power of creating the curriculum committee away from the superintendent.

This is a victory for not only intellectual freedom, but also for the students and teachers of Dixie County. This incident has prompted the school board members to take a more active role in not simply passing the superintendent’s policies, but instead to carefully study proposed documents and consider their potential ramifications for students before they are voted into effect.

Most of us who are library media specialists probably feel like a requirement for the job is that you have to be a “jack of all trades.” I was used to handling the book orders, taking inventory, providing reader’s advisory, and checking out books. The title “of public defender” was never even on my radar. However, when my library books were threatened with censorship and possible removal, it was not even a second thought that this was the role I would assume. I stood up for the books because I am an English teacher--a librarian-- a parent. Although my son Kip and daughter Maddie are not yet in high school, they are students in the school system where I work and they deserve to be able to have free and open access to information even if the views that they read differ from my own.

I stood up for the books because it was the right thing to do. It was not easy; it was stressful and there were times that I was not sure that my public speeches and banners adorning the school hallways celebrating Banned Books Week would not end with an eventual termination or removal from my position as librarian and English department head. However, the results were ironically polar opposite. My students were incited with passion to read classic literature. They could see how one person standing up for their beliefs truly could make an impact. We worried together, we laughed together, but most importantly, we READ together.

Updated: November 2019

Lindsey Whittington is currently the Dean of Students at Bronson Middle High School. Prior to this position, she was the Library Media Specialist and Advanced Placement English Language teacher at her alma mater, Dixie County High School located in Cross City, Florida. She is a two-time graduate of Florida State University, first with her Bachelors in English Education in 2006 and then with her Masters in Library and Information Science in 2013. She recently obtained a Masters in Educational Leadership from the University of West Florida in 2018.

Throughout her career, Ms. Whittington has passionately strived to make an impact in the field of education, spawning numerous awards for her efforts. She was the FSU College of Communication and Information Scholarship Recipient in 2011. In 2012, Ms. Whittington was a winner of the $1,000 spring Sandy Ulm Scholarship, awarded by the Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME) twice a year to Florida students pursuing an education in the field of library media services. In 2015, Ms. Whittington was elected as the President of the Dixie County Education Association. From 2017-2018, she served as co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee for FAME. She was appointed to this position due to her unwavering advocacy for her school library program in light of a draconian directive that was issued in her county that threatened to censor books and library materials. Because of her efforts, she was awarded the 2018 American Library Association’s John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award for Intellectual Freedom. Ms. Whittington was the first school media specialist to ever receive this honor.

In her spare time, Ms. Whittington enjoys traveling and reading with her children, Madilyn (10) and Kipton (8).