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Guest Opinion

Common ground found, then advocacy goes awry


Advocates for Inclusive Education Bucks County held a community social event that led to a book reading culminating in discussion on Aug. 30.

The issue at hand is suitability of books containing adult content in school libraries. The book in question was “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson. It’s the coming-of-age tale of a young Black man reconciling his sexuality as well as his place in his family and the world from his preteen years and beyond.

Serendipitously, I was included in the invitations to participate and was pleased to do so along with friend and fellow candidate for Central Bucks School Board, Aarati Martino.

We had time at the initial event to interact and get to better know some of the other participants. This paved the way for better exchanges when we finally met to review the book.

Our kind hosts were Katherine Semisch and Kate Nazemi. They set the stage and expectations for how we would proceed with an initial exchange on impressions of the book to be followed by commentary on fitness for a student audience.

What was most striking initially were the number of people present echoing the sentiment that this is not a book they would have chosen to read if not for this exercise. This is significant because I believe this would also be true for a student population.

Many of us noted the author’s great care to reveal his journey and compartmentalize his experience in a way that would allow anyone paying attention to “exit the ride” before it “became too rough.” He also built a firm foundation of solid family and caring relationships.

The relevance is that most readers would likely already have a specific interest in the book or subject matter, not one cultivated solely by availability or any special enticement. So, warnings or labels provided by publishers are not a reliable source of discerning age appropriateness and, if anything, might prove a draw to the curious.

I do believe oversight for acceptance should remain in local hands, with professional input for review and purchase and ultimately parental consent.

This is not a book I would recommend being on any mandatory reading list. However, given the richness of the discussion we had during the book club, I believe including it optionally in a summer or preparatory syllabus makes more sense given the traumatic pivot in the book describing the author’s wrenching push from childhood to young adult.

I have heard that this is a book or type, like others, that has been withheld from students by local librarians and given to them with parental consent.

This is not an official policy but leads me to favor an “opt in” approach “opt out.”

In short, if there is questionable material present, the access might be limited and subsequently granted with approval. The premise that the benefits of increasing exposure outweighs consideration for age appropriateness lacks regard for a parent determining how their child might respond long-term or short.

I felt pretty good leaving the event. The interactions were all constructive and I met at least one new person, a career educator and I will be maintaining contact.

It was an evening where I felt we had turned a corner and established an understanding with those who may have had different expectations of us. I have always believed in building bridges and elevating dialog even where disagreement may exist.

That night a group many might think could not have had a meaningful discussion, not only did so but found lots of common ground. We came together in community, the right way to model behavior.

Where can advocacy go wrong? After the book club gathering, I spoke to some students in the center of town about the brilliant blue moon, they thanked me for the info, I mentioned my campaign for school board and they were more than eager to spread the word.

It wasn’t but a few moments later when they encountered a local activist who quickly silenced their enthusiasm. This person was confronted with the students praising my candidacy and immediately told the kids I was “anti-queer.” That’s a phrase I’ve never used and a position I’ve never taken.

I don’t appreciate being mischaracterized and I specifically think it’s wrong to deceive children. None of those involved realized I was within earshot across the street. What’s most interesting is this person knows me and knows better but chose to continue to paint me incorrectly with the same broad brush as others, even after being called out on it. The followup is that those kids expressed disappointment and felt that adults should avoid exerting undue influence.

Well intended or not there are some that will embrace agenda and others that will reject it. Ultimately respect should dictate observation of boundaries. If not, protections have been put in place and remain to provide guidance.

Tony Arjona is a Central Bucks School Board candidate in Region 8.

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