Inherit the Wallflower
Notes from Conroe ISD's Epic January Board Meeting
Last Wednesday night, the online anti-censorship world set its eyes on Conroe ISD in Texas, where the board’s monthly meeting agenda included two items that promised fireworks: the first was board consideration of a request by trustee Misty Odenweller to become a standing member on all district book reconsideration committees1; the second was an appeal seeking to overturn a reconsideration committee’s decision to keep Steven Chbosky’s 1999 novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower on school library shelves.
The meeting last almost 8 hours, culminating in a sort of “trial” for Perks, with attorneys representing each side giving an opening argument before being cross-examined by the board. The lawyer representing the book’s challenger was from County Citizens Defending Freedom, an extremist group based in Florida with branches in Texas. He quickly raised everyone’s hackles by unfavorably comparing Texas law to Florida’s. It was a poor rhetorical start—the first rule of making a presentation to a group of Texans is to not insult Texas—but it did give me a new idea for a political slogan: Don’t Florida my Texas.
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Notably, the CCDF attorney chose not to argue that Perks violates the Texas Penal Code statutes on obscenity (which was smart, because it doesn’t). Instead, he argued that under Island Trees School District v. Pico, school boards have the authority to remove material that is “pervasively vulgar.” It was a more moderate point, but it ran up against the reality that Perks isn’t pervasively vulgar, either. “I’m talking about just your authority to remove the book without fear of lawyers running out to sue the school district,” the attorney said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, as long as you articulate that you find the exhibit and the materials here today pervasively vulgar.”
“But to articulate that, we’d have to believe it,” replied trustee Stacey Chase.
Ultimately, the board voted 4-3 to keep the book in the library, though it did remove it as a curriculum option (Perks had been offered as a choice for a 10th-grade reading assignment) and take it out of classroom libraries. The board also voted to consider in a future meeting an opt-in policy for controversial books. No decision was made on Odenweller’s attempt to join the book committees, because there was some debate as to whether her doing so would require a revision to district rules. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine her getting the necessary votes to make that happen.
But the drama was in how the board came to those decisions. It was clear from the start that three trustees (Datren Williams, Theresa Wagaman, and Stacey Chase) supported neither the book removal nor Odenweller’s plan. On the other side, three new trustees (Odenweller, Melissa Dungan, and Tiffany Baumann Nelson) belong to the book-banning Christian Nationalist organization Mama Bears Rising. In the middle was board president Skeeter Hubert, a Republican who has expressed concern about books in schools but has also spoken against extremism and had some angry confrontations with Mama Bears Rising.
It seemed Hubert would be the swing vote. And swing he did, like Sidney Bechet, first arguing against Odenweller’s presence on book committees and then aligning with the Mama Bears when discussion turned to Perks.
So it seemed Perks was doomed. A motion was made to uphold the book reconsideration committee’s decision—keeping Perks in the library but removing it from classrooms. It failed, 3-4, with Hubert and the three Mama Bears voting together. Then, inexplicably, Dungan, one of the three Mama Bears, switched sides. Odenweller made another motion, which she framed as a compromise, to keep Perks in the library but make it available only with parental permission. “It passes,” Hubert said initially, before realizing Dungan had voted “Nay.”
“I had it off,” an exasperated Hubert said to Dungan a few minutes later, leaning out in front of his microphone.
Another motion was made, this one to keep the book in libraries, take it out of the classroom (basically upholding the original committee’s decision) and consider developing an opt-in policy at some point. This one passed, with Dungan again voting with Williams, Wagaman, and Chase.
Like Hubert, I don’t completely understand what Dungan was thinking. She wrote on Facebook that “no motion presented during the meeting ensured removal of the Perks book from ‘library library’ shelves, only ‘classroom library’ shelves.” But the motion she voted for ensures that Perks stays on library shelves and, besides, she could have made such a motion herself.
Whatever she was thinking, it’s a win for literature and representation, for academic freedom and for young readers.
The meeting was an epic slog, but here are four important lessons to take from the night:
standUP: Conroe ISD is a powerful new force in the district. After the Mama Bears Rising candidates swept onto the board in November, a new group supporting Conroe schools, standUP: Conroe ISD, blossomed. The group consists mainly of local parents and teachers, and it’s only a few months old, but already its Facebook group is 1500 members strong and bustling with activity. Several members of the group spoke during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, and speakers supporting Perks and opposing Odenweller joining book committees outnumbered pro-censorship speakers. And standUP members were eloquent and persuasive, emphasizing a consistent message: Removing Perks from the library would abridge parents’ rights, since it would mean a few community members would be dictating the reading material available to all of the district’s students.
They were also effective. During the debate over Perks, Hubert tried to suggest that the novel is out of line with Conroe community standards. Board member Stacey Chase cited public comment as evidence that lots of community members support keeping the book on shelves. And Chase, Wagaman, and Williams all echoed standUP’s message that removing the book violates parental rights.
Whatever the Mama Bears say, they really don’t trust teachers and librarians. At one point in the evening, Chase made clear the implications of these debates: “Either you trust our educators and librarians and our committees to make decisions, or you don’t.”
Odenweller snapped back: “Would you like to see some of the books that are on our shelves?”
Scopes Monkey Trial jokes aside, this is what book decisions should look like. After the lawyers presented their cases and faced cross-examination, the board settled in for what can only be described as a calm, reasoned discussion of the merits of the book. What was missing? The rancor, the threats of jailing librarians, the demands to know who was responsible for putting this book on the shelves. All of that dissipated after even the CCDF lawyer refused to argue that Perks violated the Texas Penal Code. Misty Odenweller and Melissa Dungan had to respond to calm, informed trustees who told them the truth: This book is not pornography. And though they didn’t change their position, their demeanor and rhetoric contrasted sharply with their appearances at board meetings over the summer.
That’s what a good process does. It deflates the tension, turns the temperature down, and lets the conversation approach something like rationality and perspective.
That said, “the process” doesn’t guarantee things will go the right way. In fact, it seems that without Dungan’s flip-flop, Perks would have been restricted to require parental permission to check out. It might have been removed from the district entirely, if anyone had made that motion. And that’s because the swing vote on the board, Hubert, wasn’t convinced the book’s literary value (which he recognized) outweighed its “risks,” as Mama Bear trustee Tiffany Nelson put it. Which brings me to Lesson Four:
Persuading moderate trustees means giving them reasons to support specific challenged books. It was instructive to watch Hubert reason himself into voting to remove the book from general circulation. He fixated on the fact that he didn’t see any consequences for the characters’ bad actions. Despite the book’s depictions of drug use, “not one of these kids in this book was arrested,” Hubert argued, and none overdosed. It’s a bad reading of the book, in which characters continually face consequences just as realistic as overdosing and arrest (which happen, but are rare among high school students)2. But I was especially struck by what Hubert said next. “I did a lot of review on this,” he said, “and some of the remarks were, ‘This book helped me out,’ ‘It helped me to come out,’ or ‘It helped me to talk about rape that had happened to me.’ And what I’m saying is we have a lot of other resources today that kids can come out with that.”
Trustee Datren Williams responded with one of the best points of the night, reminding Hubert, “I don’t think the book is intended to be a resource.” Perks is a novel, not a guidance counselor’s pamphlet. And while it can benefit students’ social and moral development, it will do so as a novel, by presenting a morally messy world and asking readers to think about the situations its characters encounter.
Which also means the valuable lessons of Perks can’t be replaced by “another resource,” or even by another novel that covers the same themes. Perks is a specific, singular novel with characters that affect individual readers in distinct ways, one that creates a world that many student readers recognize as their own. It’s not for everyone—no novel is—but the readers who love and benefit from it wouldn’t necessarily get the same benefits from another book.
And young readers love this book. I’ve mentioned before that some of my strongest students—my best readers and writers—list Perks as one of the books that defined them during their high school days.
That’s the perspective that, somehow, is still missing (or minimized) in conversations like Wednesday night’s trial. It’s not enough to say a book like Perks is popular or critically acclaimed. Persuadable trustees, like Hubert, need to hear from readers of the books facing removal what those books give to the world, and why they’re irreplaceable.
I know that will be one focus of this newsletter moving forward: I’ll aim to highlight thoughtful reviews of challenged books (like this one of Gender Queer by South Carolina writer Paul Bowers) and interview young readers about the books that shaped them.
The attacks on literacy, literature, inclusion and free inquiry are so big that it’s tempting to defend those things in principle. But the books on the chopping block are specific stories that matter to specific people, and it might be more effective, when talking to persuadable board members, to highlight the good in those stories and those people.
It’s hard to overstate what a bad idea having Odenweller on book committees would be. As Erin Bingham of standUP: Conroe ISD has pointed out, Odenweller has challenged more books than anyone else in the district; she also organized Mama Bears Rising’s attempt to mass-challenge 35 books last May. And, as a trustee, she has one of the final votes on all book decisions that go through the appeals process. Now she wants to have a say in the intermediate step in the process, giving her way more influence on what books are available in the district than anyone else. And, as board president Skeeter Hubert pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting, her presence on book committees would be inherently intimidating to teachers or librarians who might disagree with her.
For example, a couple of trustees (and the CCDF lawyer) mentioned as particularly offensive a part of the book where the protagonist’s friend, Patrick, starts drinking a lot and has a series of anonymous sexual encounters in city parks after a bad break-up from a boyfriend who mistreated him. But here’s a passage from the section:
The nights he would pick someone up always made him sad. It’s hard, too, because Patrick began every night really excited. He always said he felt free. And tonight was his destiny. And things like that. But by the end of the night, he just looked sad. Sometimes, he would talk about Brad. Sometimes, he wouldn’t. But after a while, the whole thing just wasn’t interesting to him anymore, and he ran out of things to keep himself numb.
That’s a consequence. The nuance is that in Perks of Being a Wallflower, the consequences of bad actions often fall on people other than their perpetrators. In fact, that’s one of the central themes of the book—Charlie deals with the consequences of being abused, his sister deals with the consequences of an abusive boyfriend, etc. It’s not as simple as the message Hubert wanted the book to impart (do dangerous things and bad things will happen to you) but it’s a message that’s both important and age-appropriate for high school readers.