My initial brush with censorship was in fifth grade with Miss Bentz. She was my first non-nun teacher, and in the beginning I really liked her; she let me be her page turner when she played the piano for the school Christmas play, and she had our class learn about Japan by eating popcorn with chopsticks. Then, inexplicably, she went to war on my Hardy Boys books.
Her opening salvo was an “F” on a book report about Hardy Boy Mystery number fifteen: The Sinister Signpost. I was expecting an “A”. Arithmetic could be iffy, but I always got “As” on book reports. This was my first “F” ever, in any subject, and it meant I had to take the paper home and have it signed by my parents.
I expected to be yelled at, shamed, and held up to my siblings as an example of a kid rotten to the core. That was how my mother usually handled these kind of things. But nothing happened. She looked at the big red “F” and the scrawled red words: “Inappropriate Material” and told me to bring her the offending book. As soon as she saw it, she said in surprise, “This was a Hardy Boy book?” and sent me off to do my homework.
Dinner came and went. My father came home. Bed time arrived. Still nothing. In the morning, the book report was signed, and my mom told me not to do my bi-weekly book reports on Hardy Boys books anymore. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to get off that easily. I did think poor Frank and Joe Hardy were being treated unfairly, as girls in my class regularly did their reports on Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, but I was a reader from a family of readers, I could whip through a biography of someone impressive in two days, dazzle Miss Bentz with my review, and still read my Hardy Boy books for fun the rest of the time.
Wrong. The very next day that bitch stole my brand new book, Hardy Boys: Yellow Feather Mystery.
At our school, everyone was supposed to have a book to read at all times. On that particular day, I had finished a test before the time was up, so I took out my pleasure reading book – the wonderful Hardy Boys – and began quietly reading, which is what we were supposed to do. Next thing I knew, Miss Bentz ripped that book out of my hands, took it to her desk and slammed it down. Most confiscated property was given back at the end of the day, but she refused to give it back – eighty-eight cents of my hard earned money.
That night my mother told me not to bring Hardy Boys books to school anymore, to read them at home. When I asked why, my mom said Miss Bentz was old fashioned. That was all I ever got by way of explanation.
It’s now half a century later and just this week, as I was reading about the dust up in a Virginia school district over a library book called Two Boys Kissing, I had a eureka moment about Miss Bentz and her disdain for the Hardy Boys. All these years I just accepted that she was an old fashioned lady who had it in for the Hardy Boys. I never picked up on what her objection must have really been about: gender identity. Girls read Nancy Drew. Boys read the Hardy Boys.
I wonder if Miss Bentz thought reading the Hardy Boys was going to make me gay?
Turning kids gay seems to be the major worry of many Virginians who left comments on online news forums about the book Two Boys Kissing. Others think homosexuality should be a subject restricted to adults 18 and over. And someone used the words “inappropriate material”, just like Miss Bentz.
If you aren’t familiar with the book, Amazon offers this synopsis:
(Two Boys Kissing) tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS. While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing (former) couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.
A parent requested Two Boys Kissing be removed from the library at Fauquier High School, a modern, progressive, well-funded school in the suburbs of northern Virginia. The parent, Jessica Wilson, complained to Principal Clarence Burton III that the cover of the book depicts a public display of affection, which are against school policy.
Principal Burton assembled a panel of school staff and parents who reviewed the book, and voted to keep it. Jessica Wilson then appealed that decision to Fauquier School District’s superintendent David Jeck, who assembled a review committee to consider the matter.
This week the panel invited public comment – and they got it.
About fifty people packed the Fauquier’s “Falcon Room” where opinion for and against the book seemed evenly divided. Six letters were read from people unable to attend, including one by the award-winning author, David Levithan. Twenty-four people spoke both for and against the book.
Fauquier Now gave this rundown of the speakers:
Marie Miller, a teacher at FHS and the advisor for the school publication The Falconer said that she believes that those opposing the book were doing so not because of it’s lack of appropriateness for the students, but because it is a story about gay teens.
“If the focus of this book was on heterosexual teen relationships, it would not be the subject of a book challenge,” said Miller.
John Green, a member of the Fauquier County Transportation Committee, said that he doesn’t think that the material in the book is suitable for children under 18.
“Most High School students are under the age of 18,” said Green. “According to the Virginia Code, they are juveniles. The Virginia Code also defines obscene as material that as a whole appeals to an apparent interest in sex and excites lust. This book, I believe, meets that definition and is being made available to juveniles, which I believe to be inappropriate.”
Joshua Moore, a recent graduate from Fauquier’s public schools who identified himself as a member of the LGBT community, said that books similar to “Two Boys Kissing” helped him when he was having difficulty finding his identity.
“I remember how it felt for me to come to terms with myself,” said Moore. “I remember one day I went to the library and I started reading. ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ and ‘Hero.’ They were very poignant to me. My librarians helped me to broaden my horizons. I didn’t have to sit around and think that I was so alone in this school.”
JoEllen Murphy, a community member and parent, said that if the book were a movie, it wouldn’t be made available to minors.
“The ‘F-word’ is used 10 times,” said Murphy. “If this were a movie, it would be ‘R-rated.’ According to movie guidelines, ‘R-rated’ movies require a parent or guardian to be present during the viewing of the film. So if this were a DVD, and that library were a video store, the children would not be able to check it out.”
After all the speeches were made, the committee voted unanimously to retain the book in the library.
Jessica Wilson, who made the complaint, did not choose to make a public comment, but said she was happy with the turn out. She still has the option to appeal the decision to the school board, but I hope she doesn’t. I hope she listened to the back and forth and realized books and ideas are not things to be afraid of. Books don’t turn kids gay, and keeping information from gay kids won’t turn them straight. We all are what we are. I was a Hardy Boys reading tomboy right up until I was Tiger Beat reading boy crazy, and as I recall, the school was not all that happy about that period of my life either.
Let it go, Ms. Wilson.
Photo via Fauquier Now Facebook
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.