Sister of Silence banned at California high school
Let’s really kick off “Banned Books Week”
Three days ago when Livermore High School librarian Stephanie Bogetti learned that I had spoken to students at Granada High School earlier this week, and my book, Sister of Silence, was shelved there, she immediately asked me to come speak at LHS before I flew home to West Virginia.
Problem was, I was booked on an early morning flight today, headed home. So I offered to change my flight if she found enough interest from teachers and students to make it worthwhile. (“Enough” meaning more than a handful of people, since changing my travel plans would mean money out of my pocket.)
She said she would be able to fill the library, which has about 75 seats. I changed my flight to tomorrow, eager to speak to more students. (Especially since two of my children once attended that very same school.)
However, the hastily-prepared email that went out to administrators and teachers alike, came back with such an overwhelming response from teachers throughout the school that she soon realized the LHS library would not hold nearly enough people. So she moved it to the school theater. Then it became clear that the single event, slated for 8 a.m. today, would not allow as many students to attend as teachers planned to bring.
Before 9 a.m. yesterday, I received word from the librarian that—if I didn’t mind—she needed me there all day, so I could speak several times throughout the day. Teachers would bring their classes in, and the total audience, or so I thought, would come to about 500 people. This morning, I learned the actual number was closer to 1,500!
Did I mind? Not at all. The more youth who hear this message of hope, the better. So many of them are faced with serious problems, and feel isolated in a world that sometimes causes them to look for a way out. I used to feel like that, and I didn’t know the way out. But I found it—and I want to share what I learned and how I did it, with other teens who may be as confused as I once was.
The only problem was that by the time I arrived at LHS at 7:30 a.m., wheels were moving backwards. Teachers who had lesson plans that included my speech were told to make alternate plans, and students were left wondering what had happened, when they lined up for the first speech. I’m pretty sure they thought I canceled, leaving them hanging, when no such thing occurred. Quite the opposite!
Discussion quickly became focused on the school board, the school district, and the powers-that-be who make such decisions. I was told adequate prior approval was the reason the entire event was cancelled, leaving students and teachers alike extremely upset and disappointed, and reducing a librarian to tears. That’s because Bogetti is now afraid that every single book will have to undergo prior review and approval, before it comes on school property.
Livermore’s principal, Darrel Avilla, told me he hopes to bring me back in November—after he AND the school board read my book. In the meantime, the only remaining copy of Sister of Silence was removed from the shelf at LHS, while all copies in Granada’s library remain in circulation. (Students had already checked out the other three copies at LHS, which had only been there for as many days.) In one hour this morning, six other students were turned away when they requested Sister of Silence, as the librarian told them they weren’t allowed to read it.
Which is when it began to feel more like censorship and less like poor planning. I began wondering what the process is for other books that go into the library, and asked Bogetti how that worked. She said she reads reviews for the books she purchases, among other things, and looks at teacher and student recommendations. Then she told me something I didn’t know:
“I haven’t tried to have an author come and speak for several years because the last time I did—and it was an author who was already here in the area, for another event—the author’s publicist told me the hourly rate was $200. You can’t get authors to come speak at schools for free,” Bogetti said.
That’s right: most authors charge schools a fee for their time. Imagine that. Yet this author not only was not charging the school a dime, but I was giving away books for free to teachers. And, I incurred more expenses when I changed my flight and had to keep my rental car for an extra day so I could accommodate the request to come speak at LHS.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind a bit spending my own money to help educate students. What I do mind is unequal treatment for students. If Granada students could hear me speak, why couldn’t LHS students? If my book is allowed to be read by Granada students, then why not LHS students? Something doesn’t feel right here, and I’m really not sure what it is. But a few things about today make the journalist within me a little, well, concerned.
For instance, I know Precious, by Sapphire, is shelved there, as are far more graphic books with far more disturbing topics—and Sister of Silence isn’t even graphic.
In addition, I overheard a discussion about one teacher’s email reply, when she learned the event was cancelled. She expressed frustration that Bogetti’s planning, the teachers’ response to it, and my own efforts—all of which were going smoothly and which had caused great excitement in the student body—would not result in school officials trying to find some way to give it the green light, anyway. In other words, if the proper channels weren’t given a chance to give their blessing, then get them on the phone and get that blessing posthaste, so the show could go on.
Especially when, after pitching the speech—almost verbatim—to Avilla, he told me it was a great message and certainly nothing in it would be dangerous for students to hear. In fact, he said he was responsible for bringing the Laramie Project to students here—and that’s a program that deals with sensitive topics that teens need to know about.
My book does not discuss anything as controversial as homosexuality; instead it discusses how teens can prevent themselves from becoming victims of sexual abuse, violent relationships, or teen moms. And in today’s world, when two of the most popular shows are about teen pregnancy, isn’t a discussion and a book that explores how difficult it is to be one, almost a necessity in a high school library? Don’t students need to hear from a teen mom who had four children by the time she was 21, and who was so overwhelmed by both that and the violence in her home, that she reached a point where, one day, she decided the only way out was to kill herself and those children?
More important, do we want to leave teens defenseless against such suicidal feelings (regardless of why these thoughts occur) or do we want to equip them with the skills to know how to save themselves from such a plight to begin with? Do we want to help them to see that, even in the darkest circumstances, life offers hope and each of us has a well of resilience within us that can carry us through the dark times?
Of everything I say during my 45-minute speech, I like to think the three things I tell students that are most important are as follows:
1) Each of us is good at something, no matter what it is. Find that one thing and hold onto it, for, like writing did for me, it can take us far beyond any relationship with another person.
2) If you need help, no matter what kind of help, all you have to do is ask for it. People will bend over backwards just to help you, and many of these people are teachers. All you have to do it speak up and ask.
3) Keeping secrets is dangerous and can be deadly. The more you break your own silence and speak up—maybe beginning with just one person at a time—the more you learn that shame or guilt has no hold on you. Speaking up frees you in a way that keeping secrets cannot, and empowers you to the point where you become a new person. A stronger person.
I’ve been told mine is a powerful message, but I deliberately package it in a discreet way. I believe, and so do the people who have heard it, that it’s a message filled with hope, faith, and the ability to thrive. I just hope students at LHS understand I had nothing to do with today’s decision. I also hope some day very soon I can come back and share my message in person with each and every one of you!
Editor’s note: If you are a teen, have a teen or just want to know what all the fuss is about, you can read a few pages of SOS online at Amazon. Sister of Silence, which is being used by at least one Bay Area therapist, to help her patients work on healing from abuse, is available in paperback or as an e-book. You can buy it here: Nellie Bly Books