What if some doctors found a medicine that had the potential to save hundreds of lives, or even just one life, or even to just make some lives immeasurably better? What if these same doctors, who had this potentially life-saving or life-enhancing medicine, decided to hide it, to pull if off the shelves, to tuck it into corners because it could cause some difficult questions or it might even make someone upset? What would we think about these doctors? What would we say about these people who were supposed to be in the life-saving business, who instead decided, for their own comfort, to hide the very thing that could make an enormous difference in a person’s life?
Perhaps we would call them selfish. Perhaps we would suggest that they should no longer be doctors. Who knows. Perhaps we would go so far as to vilify them or to demand that they change their choices. I am not sure exactly what we would say, but I am almost positive that we would say that it was wrong.
Right now, in today’s schools and libraries, we are making very similar and very dangerous decisions. We are not hiding medicine. We are not denying a pill or a vaccine that could save a child’s life. Instead we are withholding books. We are hiding truths. We are denying children the chance to see their own stories written within the pages of books. All because it might make us uncomfortable. All because it might raise questions. All because it might make someone angry.
Recently Phil Bildner and Kate Messner, both amazing authors who write amazing books for children, were disinvited to two different schools. Phil, most likely because he made the important choice to book talk the book George, a book about a transgender girl, on his school visits last year. And Kate, because her most recent book deals with drug addiction.
These authors, who are writing and talking about the kinds of books that I truly believe could save a child’s life or at least make a child’s life infinitely better, they were asked not to come to visit these schools because they might raise some questions that adults don’t yet know how to answer without some level of discomfort. They were asked not to come because the adults have decided that their books and their talks might make people uncomfortable. And instead of teaching our children how to deal with the things that make us uncomfortable. Instead of providing a beautiful opportunity to learn about others in this world and to grow and develop the empathy that could be the only thing that saves our world from the sea of hatred that we are currently drowning in, instead they were asked not to come. These schools made the decision to hide these books, to hide these truths, to hide the lives that most likely resemble the very lives of some of the children who would have been sitting in those audiences.
And that decision, it is costly. It is costly because something happens to children who do not see themselves reflected in the world around them. I know because it happened to me.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was out as a lesbian. When I was growing up, no one ever handed me a book that had a lesbian character in it. When I was growing up, there were still no lesbian or gay characters on t.v. or in movies. When I was growing, I did not see representations of anyone who was a lesbian. So when I started to think that maybe I was, in fact, a lesbian myself, I immediately decided that this was something that I needed to hide. So I pushed it away and spent a lot of really lonely years trying to convince myself that it must not really be true. Because if no one around me was out as a lesbian, that had to mean that it was something that we were not supposed to accept and it was something that made me so different and so wrong that it would be better to just deny that it was there.
And it is not just that I tried to convince myself I was gay. I also started to believe that something must be wrong with me. I started to believe that I was not worthy of being loved. I started to feel like I did not belong. That I did not fit in. That I did not have a place in this world.
It was not until I moved, as an adult, to a place in Chicago that had a large gay population that I started to unlearn some of these things. And the truth is that many of them, in some small way, remain there today. Though I am happily married to the absolute love of my life. Though we have an incredible daughter who is so proud of her two moms. Though we live in a very different world than the one I grew up in. Still it is rare that I ever feel like I fit in when I am in places outside of my own home or my own classroom. That feeling of not belonging, it dug so deep inside of who I was that it is something that I will never fully get rid of.
And I often think, what if? What if I had had just one teacher who had handed me just one book that had had just one lesbian character in it. I think that things would have been different. I am not saying that it all would have been magically fixed. But something would have been different. Something would have been better. I would have had some hope, some small glimmer of belief that I had a place in this world. That I could be both be who I really was and find a place to belong.
And at least I can look back at my own education and not find fault with my teachers. Because the truth is that they did not have access to the kinds of books that I needed as a child. There were not many books written for young kids that had gay characters in them. Not like there are today. My teachers did not have that choice. So at least I cannot fault them for that.
And that is what I find so disturbing about what is going on today. We DO have the choice. We, as teachers and parents and librarians and administrators, we have access to so many incredible books that are written about so many incredible lives. AND WE ARE HIDING THEM FROM THE CHILDREN WHO NEED THEM MOST. There are books that could make children’s lives so much better and we are pulling them off shelves and we are hiding them behind shelves and we are disinviting their authors to our schools.
In my opinion, it is immoral and it is criminal.
What happens when kids start to grow up and they look back at their own school years and they realize that we could have given them the books that would have made their lives better and we chose not to. We are choosing not to. How do we explain that to the children who are struggling? How do we explain that to the children who feel alone and unaccepted and like something is wrong with them? How do we explain that to all the other children who could be learning how to help their friends who are struggling? How are we okay saying that we know of the books that could help you, but we are not going to make them available here in our schools?
We have the tools that could help the children that we teach and we are keeping them from our students. We should be buying these books in bulk and handing them out as our children walk through the door. Or, we should be putting them on our shelves and talking about their content with every student that we encounter.
These books. They can save lives. They can make a child feel less alone. They can make a child feel like they belong. They can make a child feel like there is not anything wrong with them. They can make a child feel like its okay to be who they are because there are others just like them who stories are worthy of being told.
These books. They can save lives. We have no right to hide them.