Summer Boismier took a stand against censorship of books in her classroom. A teacher in the high school of Norman, she had been ordered to remove from her classroom any books that might violate state law HB 775. That law declares that if any educator makes part of their curriculum teachings that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” they could be suspended or have their license removed. She said teachers were instructed to remove such books or cover them with butcher paper. She did cover them up and posted a warning not to read banned books but posted the QR code of the Brooklyn Public Library, where students can gain access to banned books. The state superintendent Ryan Walters moved to suspend her teaching license. He said, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.”

Boissier wrote the following opinion article in The Oklahoman to explain her opposition to censorship and book banning:

May 2, 2004, was a Monday. How do I know, you ask? Well, I was 15 at the time, and like most 15-year-olds, I was at school. I know, shocking! But what you might not know is that a mere 24 hours before, I had lost my father to suicide. I went to school the following day because that is where I wanted to be. That is where, in the worst moments of my life to date, I believed I’d be safe. School — specifically public school — had always been the place where I felt seen and heard and valued for who I was and, most importantly, for who I was becoming as a result. As both an educator and a public school proud Oklahoman, I want something similar for all — and I mean ALL — of my students, including the many amazing learners who often look, think, love, live and/or pray differently than I do. Every single child who walks through the doors of a public school in this state should have the opportunity to feel centered, to feel valued, to feel celebrated, to feel affirmed and sustained for who they are and for the lived experiences and diverse communities they bring to class.

Education is political, and the classroom — by extension — is a political space. Let me say it louder: Education is inherently political, but it is not automatically partisan. That would be, to use the word of the day, indoctrination. Politics encompasses the ideologies supporting a person’s daily choices, or lack thereof. Politics is power — who has it and who wants it. If knowledge is also power, then it would stand to reason that the classroom is indeed political. Who gets to learn what, from whom, and how is steeped in a political reality that Oklahomans would be foolish at best and reprehensible at worst to ignore. Laws such as House Bill 1775 fail to account for the fact that some pre-K-12 students are rarely afforded the luxury of experiencing “discomfort” only at school. When skin color and/or gender presentation is weaponized, discomfort isn’t just a poor word choice in some poorly worded legislation. It is a matter of survival.

Actions can sometimes speak louder than words; however, inaction can often speak just as loudly. Silence can even scream. There is power in what we say, but there is also power in what we don’t. What does it communicate when adults in leadership positions repeatedly and loudly target books by and about the 2SLGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, among others? Make no mistake, when students — some of whom are also members of these communities — walk into public schools, they’ll get the message loud and clear that the state sees such stories as smut and such lives as less than.

Mother of multicultural children’s literature, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, argued that stories are mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Stories are also telescopes and prisms and ladders. Stories are safety. Stories are possibility. Stories are connection and validation. Stories are power. And stories are political. Empathy is dangerous precisely because it takes a sledgehammer to fear. If we don’t “other” differences and hold them at arm’s length, then those driving division by justifying censorship in our schools lose the power they’ve amassed keeping Oklahomans apart.

This is not a zero-sum game. What a student gains when teachers prioritize inclusive stories in the classroom is not another’s loss. Privilege is not a euphemism for guilt; it is a means to better understand the power a person has and the ways they can use that power to uplift others. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to defend a student’s right to read, to be represented and — by extension — to simply exist. But alas, this world is as far from perfect as I am from retirement. This incessant debate over (insert whatever term best reflects your particular belief system) books is evidence enough of that.

The lives of historically marginalized people should not be up for debate, but as Michael Brown, Ariyanna Mitchell, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, David Kato and George Floyd prove, they frequently are. Their stories cannot and should not be separated from the context of their lived experiences. No story — including the ones we teach and thereby validate in our public schools — exists in a vacuum. In the same way charges of indoctrination are an insult to their critical thinking skills, Oklahoma’s students are certainly capable of speaking for themselves. For instance, one student stated, “Being an openly gay student myself, who is witnessing LGBTQ+ characters for the first time emerging in our own curriculum, gives other LGBTQ+ students and I a more elevated self-worth and pride towards our own respective identities.”

It is time to come together as Oklahomans and side with a politics of critical thinking and compassion. This November you have a choice to make for the future of our state and the state of our public schools: a politics of inclusion or exclusion. So what’s your story? What side are you on?