By Jack Petocz
“Faggot.” “You’re an abomination to god.” “Cocksucker.” “Keep lying to yourself.” Muffled slurs ring out amidst the chaos. I move towards the audio system with trembling hands to ensure our powerful voices aren’t muzzled by the bigots armed with military-grade weapons, body armor, megaphones and war flags.
Then, directing parents and community members to create a de-facto boundary for students speaking at the rally I organized in defense of student access to library books on Nov. 16 outside the Government Services Building, I walk to the podium and begin the first speech.
That evening a range of conflicting emotions like nothing I had experienced before coursed through me. Some caused intense euphoria: feelings of pride, passion, and inspiration from my peers who joined me in defense of free access to books. But Later that night when I drove home I also felt fear, disappointment, anguish, and grief. I had to circle my street three times without headlights to ensure my family and I were safe. How had it come to this in Flagler County, that people like me should be in fear for their safety?
Then I made a decision. I wasn’t going to be intimated. I will continue to fight. They would be victorious otherwise.
But there’s no mystery why it had come to this. Book bans aren’t just book bans. Maybe they’re not intended that way, but they have the same effect: They’re attempts to erase people like me, to scare us back into invisibility and irrelevance. We will be neither.
Angered by a discrimination-shaded attempt by School Board member Jill Woolbright to censor All Boys Aren’t Blue, Stamped, Speak, and The Hate U Give, a few of my classmates and I prepared flyers for a student-led protest outside the board meeting that week. Under the organization I founded, “Recall FCSB,” we released the call for action and were astonished by the results. Students of all backgrounds and creeds, particularly those within the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, were ready to fight for the four titles. These all cover essential topics such as growing up queer and person of color (POC), police brutality, sexual assault, and racial inequities.
As a gay student, I began to read All Boys Aren’t Blue, hearing of the challenge from Woolbright, and became ever more empowered to fight for George Johnson’s memoir. Although I cannot speak to the perspective of a POC, I did identify with the struggles George faced throughout adolescence with their sexuality. Notably, the trauma and anguish of that loaded question hurled at you since you were a young child: “Are you gay?”
In addition to these stories, Johnson included some personal anecdotes about first sexual encounters and a recounting of sexual assault, an underrepresented story in a stew of unquestioned heterosexual relations within our school. Attacking All Boys and claiming it is “pornography” invalidates an award-winning author’s life story under the deceptive guise of “protecting students.” You’re not protecting anyone; you are trying to suppress differing ideas and experiences that make you uncomfortable. It projects homophobia, not protection.
The evening of the 16th, the students addressed the Flagler County School Board despite enduring the vilest verbal attacks and physical threats moments earlier. Escorted by police through a gauntlet of screaming adults, we marched into the chamber, waiting hours for a chance to speak our minds. Sitting there, clenching the hands of some of my closest friends, I had a renewed sense of devotion to this effort.
Watching the behavior of the elected members closely, I realized I needed to continue organizing to enact change within our local community. These members are advocating for the interest of hateful adults, not that of children. Smirking, whispering amongst themselves, disrespectfully shaking their head, Janet McDonald and at times Jill Woolbright made it clear they had no regard for student voices. They did not seek to denounce the vileness of the individuals outside. These board members nodded in agreement as intolerant individuals were allowed to spew horrid threats, including one suggesting I should be “tarred and feathered” for distributing a book with queer representation. For the remaining two hours of the five-hour meeting, I was intensely stared down by Janet McDonald, who should have been focusing on the board’s work.
In the chair on the left hand side, Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt remained rather quiet throughout the entirety of the meeting and finally delivered limited and non-partisan comments. I remember being hurt that she did not address the scene outside, as had Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro.
Today, her stance took on a different dimension. Although the district committee reviewing these challenged books recommended that the four titles remain on shelves, including All Boys–pending some added parameters for that one–she decided to ban All Boys, citing a personal decision upon reading the content and consultation with her peers.
While I am thankful the three other titles remain, I am disgusted with the decision to remove this critical title. I question whether Mittelstadt heard the important student voices who rallied for this book to stay, or whether she caved to the ever-vocal bigots, similar to the decision on the removal of the word “equity” from the district’s strategic plan. Have backbone: the people seeking this ban are the same who incited a violent mob against your own students.
The student body is disappointed in you and will continue to fight for change. I am penning this essay to implore Superintendent Mittlestadt to not only reconsider this decision, but also denounce the actions outside the GSB on November 16th. Instead of conversing with your peers, look at the students who are directly being affected, in addition to the authors and others who identify as LGBTQIA+ or within the BIPOC community.
By the flood of text messages I received this morning both in my personal and organization accounts, it is evident there are others out there like me who wish to reverse this decision and rally for the return of this book to school libraries.
In the meantime, we’ll flood your emails, keep showing up to board meetings, spread the books throughout our schools and advocate online for the removal of board members who show no interest in what we stand for. Listen to the committee, and do better, Cathy.
Jack Petocz is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School who plans on majoring in political science, with a minor in law, in college.