I’m no expert on human sexual development, but I’m now convinced that anxiety over the rite of passage we call coming of age lies at the heart of the attack on public and private schools by MAGA Republicans across the country, including right here in Shasta County.
All it took to sway me was an impassioned speech made by Jesse Lane, a self-styled militia member at the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting held last Wednesday at Central Valley High School.
But Wednesday he was speaking as a former student who graduated from CVHS and as the father of a 12-year-old daughter who is attending a school in the district now.
“I’m up here, I had an issue with something my 12-year-old daughter brought home from her school,” Lane told the board. “I’m going to read a quick little passage from the book.”
The book in question was “Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind” written by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Her 1989 coming-of-age novel centered on the character of Shabanu, an 11-year-old girl growing up in the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan. Her father cares for and trades camels; her 13-year-old sister Phulan will soon wed in an arranged marriage to a distant cousin, a fate that also awaits Shabanu when she comes of age.
In the passage Lane read, Shabanu and Phulan are being bathed by their mother, a rarity in the arid desert. Shabanu is the first-person narrator of the story.
“Phulan does not want to be married. How can it not be mean?” Lane read. “Yesterday we bathed in the toba. I watched her secretly from behind the curtain of my own hair while mama poured water over it. Phulan sat shamelessly naked to the waist, stroking her skin and running her long fingers through her wet hair. Her breasts had begun to poke out a tiny swelling each the size of a camel dropping. Her deep-set eyes looked far away.”
There’s no question it’s an intimate scene, a mother bathing her young daughters, written in poetic prose that might be challenging to some 12-year-olds. There were a few audible gasps from the audience as Lane read the out-of-context excerpt. But is the author attempting to groom the reader toward some nefarious purpose? Lane believes Staples is grooming the reader and contacted his daughter’s school.
“So I called the school, the school was very receptive on this, told me that this was something that was approved through Gateway Unified School District,” Lane said. “This isn’t a library book; it’s a book kids have to read for their English class. The reason why is because it aligns with their history class about the rise of Islam.
“So I read this whole book, I spent the weekend and read the whole book. The book is very well-written, I can understand why it may have been a book chosen,” Lane admitted.
“But the fact that we have the sexual connotation inside there to groom our children, I’m not OK with that,” Lane said. “I’m a dad. I’m here because I read and took the time to see what my daughter had in front of her and what she had to read and I was not OK with it.
“So it would be something I’d like you guys to look into,” Lane advised the board.
To be certain, it’s Lane who’s sexualizing the passage from Shabanu, not its author. It’s Lane’s interpretation. As a father he’s entitled to question whether his 12-year-old daughter should be reading the book. Lane didn’t specify what action he expected the board to take, but presumably he wants Shabanu to be removed from his daughter’s lesson plans. In other words, he wants Shabanu canceled.
If that happens, that’s when Lane’s literary opinion becomes problematic for the rest of us.
Muslim critics have complained Staples’s depictions of Islamic marriage rituals are harsh and outdated. Some reviewers have complained the book, which won the Newbery Medal in 1990 for distinguished contribution to American literature for children, has been marketed to readers 11 and under who may be too young to comprehend its more mature themes. At least one librarian has transferred the book from the juvenile section (13-15) to the young adult section (15 and up) for the same reason.
That’s against a backdrop in which hundreds of books are challenged at libraries, schools and universities across the United States every year, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. The OIF compiles a list of the top 10 most challenged books every year.
Some challenges make the news, like the repeated calls to ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for its use of the n-word or demands from certain Christian sects to ban the entire Harry Potter series for promoting witchcraft and magic.
Sometimes, “The Bible” makes the top 10 list.
But during the past several years, a growing percentage of the top 10 most challenged books list has been taken up by young adult titles featuring LGBTQIA+ content. In 2021, five out of the top 10 most challenged books were challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, including the top three, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.
The three books, respectively a memoir, a young adult novel and a collection of essays, all deal with challenges members of the LGBTQIA+ community encounter during the coming-of-age phase.
Reminder: Girls and boys mature at different rates. According to Wikipedia: “On average, girls begin puberty at ages 10–11 and complete puberty at ages 15–17; boys generally begin puberty at ages 11–12 and complete puberty at ages 16–17.”
Adolescence ranges from 10-19.
Who among us has passed through this mysterious six-to-seven-year window in time and forgotten the raging hormones, divergent growth spurts and unexplained attractions no one (meaning no adult) bothered warning us about?
If you have children who have passed through this stage, then you don’t need any reminders.
That’s one reason why young adult-literature exists: to clue young adults in on the mysteries of life that adults have deemed for whatever reason verboten. There’s a pent-up demand for knowledge that’s not being met, in part because young adult literature that deals with sexual coming-of-age issues is often suppressed, including information that should be provided in sex education courses in public schools.
I have no idea if the top three most challenged books from 2021 mentioned above are available in local public high schools, but they are on the shelf at the Shasta County Library. I’ve never heard of anyone protesting their existence.
The increasing number of challenges against LGBTQIA+ literature has coincided with the MAGA Republican Party’s mounting hostility toward the LGBTQIA+ community, especially its transgender members.
This summer, the 6-3 ultraconservative U.S. Supreme Court majority is expected to decide in favor of a Christian website developer seeking to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ community members on religious grounds. Self-proclaimed Christian nationalist Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia has pledged to pass a nationwide ban on gender-affirming healthcare for young adults under age 18 now that the hapless House Republicans have finally elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaker.
Locally, Authur Gorman, a registered nurse and medical-freedom advocate who was elected to the Shasta County Board of Education in November, immediately attacked the transgender community the moment he was sworn in last month. Gorman voted against a statewide update to transgender student policy that requires public school employees to use the name and pronouns of a transgender student’s choice or face potential charges of harassment for knowingly dead-naming the student.
The SCOE board voted 6-1 in favor of the perfunctory update; to not do so could have put state funding at risk. Gorman has demanded that all six of his fellow board members be recalled for violating his apparently deeply held religious belief that transgender students are subhuman.
Gorman’s wife Katie teaches in the Gateway Unified School District, where insiders say she played a role in the campaign that ultimately ousted former superintendent Jim Harrell. Harrell was fired without cause by the board’s new MAGA majority featuring Cherrill Clifford and Elias and Lindsi Haynes at the Dec. 20 board meeting.
In a Facebook post, Authur Gorman encouraged his supporters to crash the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 4.
“This board can use some conservative voices to speak up,” Gorman said. “The liberals are going to be there in full force advocating for a superintendent who will be an arm of the state and [Shasta County Schools Superintendent] Judy Flores.”
On a dark and stormy Wednesday night approximately 100 people gathered in the CVHS auditorium. I’d wager more than two-thirds of them opposed the rash firing of Harrell; a small but loud minority supported the new MAGA board. Despite claims that the MAGA supporters weren’t from the district, a surprising number of them were from the district, or at least claimed to be. They’d just never been to a school board meeting before in their lives.
Jesse Lane has gained some celebrity/notoriety in Shasta County during the past several years of political turmoil.
His entrance to the auditorium was noted by one of my sources in the room, who texted me, “The militia is here.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Right in front of you.”
There he was, Jesse Lane, wearing a black ball cap, his wide back stretching an olive drab “NorCal III%” T-shirt, sitting right in front of me.
About that “three percenter” T-shirt: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Three Percenterism is not a group, but a sub-ideology or common belief that falls within the larger antigovernment militia movement. Three Percenters claim that only 3 percent of American colonists fought against the British during the American Revolution, a claim that has never been proven.”
As the meeting began, the audience was prickly, with members from both sides breaking decorum to get their digs in. The first speaker ferociously called out the school board for forwarding a complaint about rightwing provocateur Rich Gallardo illegally brandishing a stun gun at the last board meeting to Gallardo himself. In turn, Gallardo sent a threatening email to the woman who complained.
(I contacted all five board members about this allegation, only Phil Lewis and Dale Wallace replied, both denying that they’d forwarded the email to Gallardo.)
Gallardo was not in attendance Wednesday; neither was Gorman. It was left up to Lane to carry the torch.
When Lane stepped up to the podium and began to speak, he caught me off guard. Contrary to the heated rhetoric we’ve become accustomed to hearing from the MAGA crowd, he was soft-spoken, even respectful. As a former CVHS student he’d known Phil Lewis since high school and he acknowledged their friendship.
There was a prurient aspect to Lane’s reading from Shabanu, as if he might be reciting from the Kama Sutra. Ripped out of context from the 288-page young adult novel, the audience had no way of knowing the story was being told through the eyes of 11-year-old Shabanu, who sees her 13-year-old sister Phulan as “shamelessly naked to the waist” while they’re being washed by their mother.
This isn’t a lesbian love scene. Shabanu has noticed her sister Phulan’s breasts are developing. She’s coming of age. The only character being groomed is Phulan, destined to wed her distant cousin in an arranged marriage.
That’s not what Lane meant when he claimed the book grooms the student reader. I believe Lane was genuinely alarmed that his 12-year-old daughter had been assigned a book with this one graphic description of nudity, but that’s not grooming. As mentioned above, Shabanu isn’t considered a controversial book, but some critics have questioned whether its content is appropriate for readers 12 and under.
Unlike most parents, Lane took action. He contacted the school and asked why his daughter had been assigned the book. The school was very accommodating and explained the assignment was part of an Islamic history learning unit. Lane actually took time to read Shabanu. He found the novel well-written and understood why it was assigned as part of an Islamic history unit, even though he still thinks it’s inappropriate for his daughter.
That’s his prerogative. It may sound quaint in the internet age, but plenty of parents don’t want their kids reading depictions of nudity in public school, especially kids in that bothersome 11-to-17 coming-of-age range.
Lane stopped short of asking the Gateway board to ban Shabanu. I got the impression he was satisfied with the school’s response to his complaint. He didn’t say how or if it had been resolved, but in most cases a teacher can assign an alternate book if necessary. I think Lane enjoyed Shabanu and perhaps felt differently about the book after reading it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the problems in our public schools were this easy to solve?
Unfortunately for them, the new Gateway MAGA board—Cherrill Clifford and Elias and Lindsi Haynes—has discovered problems aren’t so easy to solve. Summarily firing superintendent Harrell shortly before Christmas in the hopes of hiring Christian nationalist Bryan Caples after New Year’s turned out to be an unworkable proposition from the get-go. The official search for a new superintendent has commenced.
In his speech, it was refreshing that Lane didn’t rail against usual MAGA targets such as Critical Race Theory, wokeism and the LGBTQIA+ community, especially its transgender members.
Expect that to change this week when the Shasta County Board of Education meets on Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m. at the Shasta County Office of Education Development Center. At his first board meeting last month, Authur Gorman demanded that his six fellow board members be recalled after they voted 6-1 against him to approve new state regulations that make purposely dead-naming a transgender or gender-fluid student an infraction. What minority will Gorman go after this week?
The following week, the new MAGA majority on the Millville Elementary School District board of trustees, Whitney Hathaway, Beth Watt and Taryn Ham meet for the first time this year on Jan. 18 at 5:30 pm. So far, Whitney, Hathaway and Watt have not tipped their hand.
Long story short, with House Republicans now kicking off their national campaign against gender affirmative healthcare, expect our new MAGA school board members to follow their lead and go after our most vulnerable students.
It’s what they do.
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