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Before School Censors: When Mockingbird‘s Harper Lee Spoke Proudly of Flagler County

| November 1, 2010

If she could see Flagler now, she'd take back her words.

“Atticus,” Scout asks her father, in one of the celebrated scenes of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody.”

The scene is quoted in the review of the novel in the July 13, 1960 issue of The New York Times, a family newspaper. It is the sort of scene using that one word that led Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva and Superintendent Janet Valentine to cancel a student stage production of Mockingbird three weeks into rehearsals. The district feared repercussions. Oliva objects to what he calls “profanity” used anywhere on campus, even on stage, by students. Valentine, without citing specifics but relying on the equally vague warnings of vaguer voices in the community—not faculty, not students, not anyone involved in the play—said student safety warranted the cancellation.

The decision, controversial in its own right, set off a debate over race relations locally, censorship, Flagler County’s image, and above all, historical memory and a school district’s role in controlling whether and how students engage with issues that cut to the heart of cultural identities.

What would Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, think of the school district’s decision to cancel the production? As it turns out, Lee addressed Flagler County directly in a March 27, 2002 letter, when she wrote of her “great honor” that the county chose To Kill a Mockingbird as the first book to read in its annual, community-wide program, “Flagler Reads Together.” The program was organized by Mary Ann Clark through the Friends of the Flagler County Library—a half dozen events featuring the book, hundreds of readers across the county, showings of the movie, and yes, a student, stage production of the courtroom scene from Mockingbird.

harper lee letter to flagler county

Click on the image for a large view of Lee's full letter.

Clark wrote Lee of the upcoming events, not thinking the reclusive author, who rarely gives interviews, would respond. She did, on her clickety old typewriter. She wrote: “It is a great honor for To Kill a Mockingbird to be chosen as the first book for ‘Flagler Reads Together.’ I hope that the event becomes an annual one and that the book so chosen will bring together people of all backgrounds to share their experiences of life. When this happens, cultural barriers begin to come down and people discover that they are not so far apart after all. Good reading to everybody!”

The stage performance of Mockingbird was the culmination of the month-long events around the book. The performance was not only public: it was staged in Judge Sharon Atack’s courtroom in the old courthouse, to a near-packed audience, according to an article from the time. “The kids had no objection to using the word ‘nigger’ as I recall. This was eight years ago. That’s what happened then.”

Mary Beale, for 20 years the drama director at Flagler Palm Coast High School, directed the production. Beale retired from FPC last year. She now teaches English at an American school in Cairo (the same school headed by former Superintendent Bill Delbrugge). Contacted by phone this morning, Beale said that play at the courthouse “was received so well by all kinds of people and people of all ages in the community, and my students learned a great deal from involving themselves in the characters.”

In her 20 years, Beale had produced her share of controversial plays. She recalled one in particular, produced when Delbrugge was principal around the same time as the staging of Mockingbird. “He handled all of it very well I thought, that was ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ which essentially is an anti-censorship story. There were some objections to it from the community, which he responded to in a very favorable manner in that this was literature, and in the context of the literature, it was acceptable content. In fact I didn’t know that there had been objections until we had a conversation about it later when he said there’d been some, and he’d run interference on it.”

Valentine and Jacob say the current drama director, Ed Koczergo, did not follow “protocol” by not bringing the script to the principal’s attention before going ahead with the play, which was originally scheduled for four performances Nov. 12-14 at the auditorium. Had Oliva known the script contained the word “nigger,” he would have objected, or been better prepared to handle the issue.

The claim is hollow on two counts: As lead actor Eddie Green recalls, “When Mr. K sent out the audition fliers, he put on there that the N word was going to be used. They got posted all over the school.” Koczergo himself confirms it: “The audition notice stated specifically that the ‘N-word’ was in the production and would be used. So people were well aware of that and I also read passages of it in my classroom, and no one said anything about.” For the administration to suggest that it was blindsided by the appearance of the word suggests that the principal and his assistants, or teachers, don’t pay attention to what goes up on their schoolhouse walls.

Second, Koczergo had no reason to seek the principal’s approval for the play since Clark bought the play for Flagler Palm Coast High School students’ drama department in 2002, from Dramatic Publishing. Fifteen copies were bought for $5.95 a copy. “I can understand why Mr. Koczergo would assume that it would be an acceptable production to do,” Beale said, given the drama department’s  occasional forays into more daring territory. (Beale is teaching “The Crucible,” at the moment in Cairo, a play she also staged at FPC.)

50th Anniversary Celebration of Mockingbird This Weekend:

  • the Friends of the Flagler County Library this week are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the book over two days, Nov. 5 and 6. On Nov. 5 at the library (at 2 p.m.), the author John Cowardin, a friend of Harper Lee’s, will share stories of his friendship and Mockingbird memorabilia. The following day, at 11:30 a.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, author Lisa Unger will speak about her own book, Fragile, at the Friends’ annual luncheon. On the 6th, the movie will be shown at the library’s meeting room at 1:30 p.m.

The administration’s claim that student performers would be at risk of becoming “pawns” in a political controversy, or that they would be subjected to ridicule, is equally hollow. It is based on speculation that has yet to produce any evidence, including from Oliva and Valentine (who say there are no notable racial issues at the high school). The claim is discredited by the same drama department, with different students, staging key parts of the production at the courthouse. The courtroom scene in Mockingbird has four characters using the word “nigger” in a context that shows the characters’ ignorance.

The Flagler County School Board discussed the matter during a workshop Thursday afternoon, at Board Member Colleen Conklin’s request. Conklin wants to see the production staged in the future. She says the controversy could be “a beautiful thing”—if it’s used to educate students and the community about the book’s very purpose, which Harper Lee addresses in her letter to Flagler County: to “bring together people of all backgrounds” so that “cultural barriers begin to come down.”

The board was not that interested. Andy Dance, who has spoken supportively of seeing the play revived in the right circumstances, was mostly silent, as was Trevor Tucker. Sue Dickinson was absent, though in a subsequent conversation she was clearly wrestling with the issue. Oliva, the principal, said: “I still have concerns with students using profanity in any performance.” And when Conklin suggested that the play could be revived in the proper context, with prefacing warnings and teachable moments, Valentine said that was not the intent when the play was originally canceled. She reiterated Oliva’s position: in a “controlled” setting such as a classroom, where Mockingbird is taught and shown, the use of the word “nigger” is acceptable because it can be put in context. Beyond the school, it wouldn’t be so controlled.

The position reflected another common fear from those supporting the cancellation, including John Winston, the black leader of a mentor program whose name is among the very few to be cited in support of the school district’s decision–that students would not be able to handle the issue without shepherding from adults.

“That’s ridiculous,” Beale, the drama director, said. “I don’t think it’s true. I think young people are much more open-minded and resilient today than they’ve ever been.” Fears of a backlash, she said, are blown out of proportion.

But the school board, which has the ultimate say on the matter, is deferring to Valentine.

“The decision has been made and I think we should let it rest,” Evie Shellenberger, the board chairwoman, said, in one of her last and most surprising decisions as a board member.

The jury never saw the light in Mockingbird, either.

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13 Responses for “Before School Censors: When Mockingbird‘s Harper Lee Spoke Proudly of Flagler County”

  1. Lynn says:

    I am STILL not understanding how anyone who has heard the language used in the novel, a stage production, or even in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird could stick to the story that the use of that language in a stage production would likely lead to division or unrest in the community.

    I can only conclude that those urging the decision makers (and the decision makers themselves) have not themselves read the book (or have not even seen the film version). If that’s true, it’s sad, and if it isn’t true, and that the educators have read the work and STILL object, that’s even sadder.

    The work itself is so powerful that no one in the audience, unless texting or sleeping, would fail to absorb the story’s powerful message. This controversy should not be let to rest. Education is at its best when it’s painful.

  2. Junior Johnson says:

    Florida is about as far south as one can get below the Mason Dixon.

    There’s a saying that you can’t get any further south than Florida.

  3. Judy Vanderoef says:

    Thank you, Pierre, for following up on this. I have always been a strong supporter of Evie Shellenberger and all of our school board members over the years, however, in this situation I simply cannot. We should not “let it rest”. It is WRONG.

    “Protocol and Control” are more frightening words to me in this context than the “N-word”.

  4. Jim Guines says:

    I really cannot believe that this is really happening and it gets worse because noone will admit that a serious mistake has been made, I feel sorry for the school system and the students, teachers and the community caught up in this mess. We are going backward.

  5. Jack Cowardin says:

    Sadly, everyone loses in this ‘politically correct’ decision based on a few poignant and offensive words
    that were every bit a part of the lexicon of prejudice and bigotry prior to the awakening of conscience that
    Harper Lee was so very much part of. Perhaps in our infinite wisdom a compromise could be offered.
    Announce before the play that words used to identify hatred and offense from the book/play would have
    a brief pause, then the dialogue would continue. But associate the ‘pause’ not because of the word itself, but for the terrible sacrifices those words once initiated, and the price paid by those who dared to
    change people’s minds. And that is why Ms Lee sang her song!

  6. Ryan M says:

    I feel that this isn’t completely about the fact that the word “nigger” is being used. It seems to me that it is more about respect. The Director should have come to the Principal with the script and let him know about the profanity in the play. I believe that Mr. Oliva would be very open minded to the play and let it be preformed, but the Director did not do so. Most likely because of this, the controversy has arisen. I will not defend the school board in their decision. It is wrong to not let this play be preformed, but it is equally wrong to go around the Principal (maybe on accident, but he did) about matters such as profanity in school. Yes, I understand that people curse ALL the time, but this is a school manner. School is different then real life. The bill of rights DO NOT APPLY IN SCHOOL. Being a student, I hold these truths to be true. In conclusion, ask for permission, and you will most likely get what you want, especially from this great principal. The saying asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission does not apply here. In this case, asking permission would’ve been easier than asking for forgiveness.

  7. I am re-posting the comment I had left on the previous article on the subject here as well.

    “Nothing would make me happier than if the powers that be retracted their ill-thought-out decision and having admitted their own narrow mindedness let the play proceed as planned. Sadly, I don’t see it happening. But we are a community of some 70K people that are not all uncomfortable in our own skins and that don’t appreciate the pedantic condescension exhibited in this case. That said – I think this community has a few other venues, the Flagler Playhouse being one, where this play can be put on by those same kids without the school board or the high school administration’s approval. Of course this would raise a few logistical issues, but with the venue willing to put this play on, everything else can be resolved.

    Personally, I would gladly volunteer promotional & design services of my company, Hardison & Associates to help promote and publicize this performance, no matter what the venue is. Just contact me for details via a link under my name or call me at 597-0304 ”
    inna hardison-

  8. Kip Durocher says:

    Conklin wants to see the production staged in the future. She says the controversy could be “a beautiful thing”—. Is this woman of sound mind?

    Dance commented “First and foremost, the typical procedures and protocols used to determine what productions are performed at the high school were not followed…”
    This is just a very lame attempt to CYA after the horse has left the barn.

    What is the matter with this principal? Does he never leave his office? Is he aware what is happening in the school he has charge over? After 3 weeks of rehearsal he finally has objections? When did Ms. Valentine tell him he had to object? Are the phone logs available of their communications?
    How many secret school board meetings have happened this weekend?

    “The drama teacher has admitted that he did not clear the play’s manuscript with the assistant principal before proceeding, as required…..
    Was this admission made under threat of losing his job? How could he feel any other way?
    “Delphine Williamson, who’s taught To Kill a Mockingbird and shown the movie at FPC for 20 years to 9th graders, and who is African-American, says she’s “never had an issue with this. Ever—with showing the movie or teaching the text.”

    Please make available the correspondence of all the principals for the last 20 years that
    took place with Ms. Williamson. 10 years ! 5 years !
    The “protocol” lie makes you look even more deceitful and condescending . You referring to the whole school board.
    Mr. Dance your conduct in this whole matter makes you appear misguided, lacking in education and judgment, and wholly unfit for your position on the school board. You have just today alone made the hole you have yourself dug doubly deep. This would go with all your fellow members.

    People who cannot admit their mistakes are not worth keeping around ~doubly so on the taxpayer’s dime.

    A group of old fashioned “pols” in every disparaging sense of the word.

    I repeat ~it is time to look at termination of contracts, recall elections, firing of salaried principals. And finally a complaint to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
    Poor decisions have been made at elections, staff appointments ect. This mess must be cleaned up even if it involves removing people before they do any more damage. Which they are in the process of doing!!

  9. Kip – I can understand you being upset over what transpired, heck – most of us here are, but your rant seems to be taking this whole thing rather out of proportion, which I don’t think will help resolve this matter or foster any meaningful dialogue.

    No one’s civil rights were violated, Kip. The thing that was done was indecent and wrong on lots of levels, and we can all be ashamed and embarrassed for our elected officials and angry on behalf of the kids involved. We can also attempt to do something in our own small ways to see this play performed some time, somewhere. Screaming for termination of contracts and filing complaints is counterproductive to any reasonable objective here, methinks.

  10. cyd weeks says:

    I’m just sitting here shaking my head. When do we vote regarding these people again?
    By the way…did this principal never read the book? Did he not know the word was in the book and movie? Thank goodness he’s not teaching!
    My very best to Mary Beale. A wonderful wonderful woman and teacher. I’m sure she too is shaking her head and very grateful she’s not involved in this mess.
    I’m so disappointed and disgusted.
    And still none of the board members have answered or acknowledged the emails I sent them last week.
    I’ll be voting next time they come up again… and you know which way I’ll be voting.

  11. Jenn Kuiper says:

    Again, it’s very disappointing that all this had to happen. Mr. K. is a great director and I remember Mary Beale’s students performing this at the courthouse and it was downright moving. That being said, I believe Mr. Oliva’s decision was one he made out of fear: Fear of the reaction of the students, fear of the reaction from the community, and fear of any repercussions in general. I find it difficult to judge because I would not have wanted to be in his position. I know that I don’t know all the details and I don’t know of anyone who does other than Mr. Oliva and our superintendent. Maybe there really were threats. Yes, that’s been denied but who knows? I hope that’s not the case, but it’s not out of the question especially when we seem so polarized as not only a community but also a nation. I wouldn’t want to give into fear in any case, but I understand his feeling to protect our students at all costs. Consequently, canceling this show probably caused more controversy than putting it on in the first place. I hope we can educate all involved and put the show on in the future at our high school or in another venue.

  12. J.J. Graham says:

    Thank God protocol was not observed, otherwise this censorship would have been staged in silence. Fate is trying to get our attention.

  13. Itchey says:

    Again the obvious is over looked and hysteria over what COULD happen reigns the roost.
    #1 To kill a mockingbird is on an approved reading list for our public schools, and the school has already performed the play inthe past.. So we have a set precident, and an approval of the subject matter long before the idea of doing this play even comes about.

    (I am ashamed at the principals involved Valentine, Dance, Oliva, have apparently never read or even saw the movie that this high school play is based on… or that their memory is lacking enough to not remember the dialect, or basis that the subject is based on. Yet the require or at least encourage 9th graders to read it..hmmm)

    #2 No one has mentioned that the Drama teacher who is a fairly new hire here in Flagler, came accross 15 COPIES of the screenplay valued at $5.95 each…With this year of Tax Problems, the drama teacher found a way to keep from spending almost $90.00 by recycling these screenplays…..

    #3 Who in their right and logical mind would think that screenplays found available in the drama department or library wherever (but on school grounds and school property none the less) would require the jumping through hoops and the staging of “Mother May I”……???? If it is required then perhaps a current inventory of all screenplays should be looked at so that this miscommunication is avoided in the future? (just a suggestion)

    #4. When you hire an employee to do a job, You should also give them the responsibility that goeswith getting the job done. I do not see a problem with the subject matter at all. As far as CONTOLLLED Settings like a classroom, go I fear that many of these members and the administration do not get the chance to visit many classrooms or review the day to day discipline reports of their own alleged “Controlled Environments”. I happen to know more than a few teachers and other employee’s who complain on a regular basis about this “control” or rather the lack of it. The school board in my opinion, and the Courts for that matter should do a much better job of holding the parents responsible for theactions of their children. behavior is supposed to be taught at home and reinforced inschools, not the other way around.

    How come no mention of P.C. Vice Mayor Moorman in these follow ups? I understand now he didn’t speak to Ms. Valentine, but rather Moormans remarks were made to another school administrator, and that administator forwarded his sentiments! So we still do not know if Mr. Moorman did/does objector not? Why NOT? I realize he was outof town for a sad event and my sincerest condolences goout to him, but some serious allegations lay either on him or on the Superintendant.

    I strongly feel the original way this was handled was wrong. Given the circumstances I think a better way would have been for the supervisor’s and administrators to have had a conference with the teacher and make sure that, he understood the process to be followed from now on. However I certainly see he hada couple of reasons for selecting that play with out following channel’s,

    I think the administration had better orderan inventory of all school play manuscripts, currently possesd by the district, and either approve or disapprove them forthwith.

    Finally apparently reading, writing, or watching “To Kill a Mockingbird” is okay and encouraged by the system, however acting it is wrong?….Well what did our school administration just do by acting like they did over the subject matter….I see some errie sight sand sounds about the way the distrct makes decisions, and teaches the next generaton.

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