While 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley was using a semiautomatic pistol to kill four classmates at Michigan’s Oxford High School last week, I was thinking about an entirely different sort of threat to public school students: books with dirty words and uncomfortable stories.
Recently Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to investigate "any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography."
At the same time, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause sent a letter to the TEA and to the superintendents of various school districts around the state inquiring about the status of 850 books, demanding that officials report whether their schools possessed any of them, their locations and how much they cost.
In addition Krause requested the same information for "any other books … that address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases … HIV … AIDS … sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law or … material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."
Krause’s purpose isn’t entirely clear, but his letter begins with references to Texas school districts that have removed books from their libraries and classrooms "after receiving objections from students, parents, and taxpayers."
In short, between Abbott and Krause, both of whom are up for election next year, it appears that book banning is afoot in Texas. And shouldn’t book banning, in a society that values free expression and the rights of individuals, always make us a little nervous?
Krause’s 850-book list is a broad-brushed collection evidently cobbled together from other lists — the alphabetization restarts every 20 to 30 books. Most of the books you’ve never heard of, nor, probably, has Krause.
The indiscriminate heavy-handedness of this assemblage of books is indicated by its lack of interest in distinguishing between works like "The Bride Was a Boy," which is basically a very serious comic book, and William Styron’s "The Confessions of Nat Turner" — also on the list — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.
Maybe not every book on Krause’s list should reside on the shelves of public school libraries. Maybe not every library needs a copy of "Two Boys Kissing." But what about John Irving’s "The Cider House Rules," a real book by a real writer?
Two books that are prominent in reporting on Krause’s list are "Gender Queer," a memoir by Maia Kobabe, who identifies as nonbinary, and "In the Dream House," a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado, who is a survivor of an abusive same-sex relationship.
Kobabe’s book is a graphic novel with depictions of sex acts so explicit that it’s easy to understand why some parents object. "In the Dream House," on the other hand, was produced by Graywolf Press, a publisher known for quality literature by serious writers. Abbott and Krause appear to be uninterested in these distinctions.
The point is: I’m not sure which of these books should be in public school libraries. I’m unclear on what role parents should play in determining curricular content. But I’m also very skeptical about turning those decisions over to politicians such as Abbott, Krause and the Texas legislature, whose criteria includes the hasty rejection of anything that might make "students feel discomfort."
Abbott and the Republican politicians who control Texas have spared no efforts to make guns readily available to all Texans. Abbott has done his best to prevent local school districts from requiring their students to wear masks, the simplest protection against COVID.
So, which poses the greater threat to public school students? The abundance, availability and normalization of firearms and a casual attitude toward a deadly disease? Or a copy of "In the Dream House" in a public school library?
We’ll probably never understand fully what drove Ethan Crumbley to murder four of his classmates last week.
But one thing we can be sure of: It wasn’t because he had read too many books.