Six years ago this month, I got fired from the greatest teaching job I ever held for taking a stand. I was put on paid suspension then had a hearing before the School Board and when all was said and done, I was out of a job and mighty nearly out of a career. I worked odd jobs and lived on student loans for two years trying to support Budge in college and keep a roof over our heads. We lost pretty much everything but our home and one car. Bankruptcy and a rock bottom credit rating still haunt us today. Suffice it to say that this little grey duck isn’t worried one whit about the current financial meltdown . . . blood and turnips, you know.
The details of my stand aren’t important, but it basically involved me taking a tack counter to my supervisor’s. I thought I was right and in possession of the moral high ground. She thought I was wrong and in possession of an insubordinant attitude. The board agreed with her.
So, I tell you all that to ask you this: How far are you willing to go for what you believe in as a librarian and an educator? For example, we just celebrated Banned Books Week across the country. Had a lot of traffic on the listserv about displays and thoughts about intellectual freedom in general. People told war stories and gave their two cents about this challenge or that censorship attempt. Still, no one mentioned the unmentionable — what do you do when the challenge goes farther than you intended?
Let me cut to the chase. Are you willing to LOSE YOUR JOB because of a stance you take on intellectual freedom? Is the First Amendment so dear to your soul that you would risk unemployment for it? Think hard before you answer. This is the education field we’re talking about here. Say what you want, but for most of us, it’s not what you know, but who you know that gets you the interview that gets you the job. If that wasn’t true, the best qualified candidate would always get the position, not a nephew of a niece’s son’s best friend. You get fired, even if they don’t go after your certificate, it’s a long road back to another school. Principals talk just like we do. Administration has its listservs just like us librarians. They will know about you.
Do you want to be labeled a “boat rocker” for fighting the removal of Annie on my Mind from your library shelves? To get another librarian job after getting fired, you’ll have to have references. Where are they going to come from? “Um, Mr. X, I know you just had me fired and all, but is there any way you could write me a good recommendation for another job?” Oh yeah, and before you trot out that tired old horse about “They can’t blackball anyone . . . it’s illegal,” just remember this old fact . . . there’s the recommendation that the supervisor writes down in a nice neat paper trail and then there’s the recommendation the same supervisor gives over the phone when his buddy two districts over calls him about this librarian who worked at his school and now wants a job.
How exactly do you plan to hide that gap in your resume’? Mine looks funny. “English Teacher — 1994 to October 2002” followed by “Local Delivery Truck Driver — ”
Here’s how this thing looks. This is the dirty story; not the nice pretty version ALA wants to put out of their Office of Intellectual Freedom. You take your stand against censorship as you see it. You go to ALA for help because the board is threatening you for causing such a fuss. (For the two of you on the back row who didn’t know, small town Southern school boards DO NOT like a fuss) ALA sends legal help. Legal help your former friendly colleagues view as “outside agitators.” You and your ALA lawyer put up a good fight, but in the end, you lose and you get fired. You go home without a job and the ALA lawyer goes back home with his pay from ALA.
You lose your income. You lose your insurance. Single moms? I know a lot of you in education — how are you going to pay for that sixth grader’s constant ear infections? Lots of doctors won’t even talk to you on the phone if you don’t have insurance. Sure, you could do COBRA, but I think anyone who can afford COBRA premiums doesn’t really need to work anyway. Ever lost your house? I did when I was a kid and my dad left me and Mama. Foreclosure is ugly when it leaves the nightly news and camps out in your former living room. Explain to your children why they are losing their individual rooms and their nice back yard to go live with Nana and Papa and you all have to share your old bedroom with the bubble gum pink canopy bed. You know, the one you swore after college you’d never sleep in again?
Guys out there? Think you’ll have it any better? Sure, you could get a construction job easier than the ladies could . . . if any construction firms were hiring. Oh, and those jobs don’t have insurance either. You ready to live off your wife’s check? Ready to face the in-laws who probably don’t like you much anyway?
I don’t want to be pessimistic or alarmist. I value intellectual freedom — to a point. I also value a roof over my head and a decent car to drive. ALA may be great at providing advice, but they are lousy at paying your utility bills.
It’s easy to sit back and play love seat lawyer when it’s not your bacon in the fire. What happens though when your principal walks in tomorrow and hands you a book that “someone in the community” wants off your shelves? By all means, follow your procedures and policies. Have all the forms ready that you want.
But what if he says, “The school doesn’t need this publicity. Take the book off now.”
You going to fight? How hard? Sure, you may not get fired outright, but principals have ways of getting rid of “boat rockers.” You ready to see your budget slashed? Ready to move from a flex to a fixed schedule again? Ready to have new duties? There are a hundred ways for an administrator to make your life so miserable that you’ll leave. But where are you going to go? You willing to drive two hours one way burning $4.00 gallon gas to get to a district that needs you bad enough to overlook the baggage?
Say what you want to, but don’t say it can’t happen. If push comes to shove, how firm is your stand?