By Mike McCombs
The Island News
In a Beaufort County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, March 7, marked by an unruly speaker and an unruly audience, the school board once again “concurred” by a vote of 8-3 with its Book Review Committees on its decisions regarding nine books among the 97 books challenged for removal from Beaufort County Schools.
The committees Nos. 17 through 26 which met Thursday, Feb. 16, at Okatie Elementary School, had rendered the following decisions on the following books:
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – returned to grades 9 through12 only
- Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson – returned to grades 6 through 12 only
- I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson– returned to grades 6 through 12 only
- Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson – returned to grades 6 through 12 only
- Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult – removed from circulation
- Sold by Patricia McCormick – returned to grades 6 through 12 only
- All the Things We Do In The Dark by Saundra Mitchell – returned to circulation without restrictions
- City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare – returned to grades 6 through 12 only
- I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez – returned to grades 9 through 12 only
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews – returned to grades 9 through 12 only
All the committees findings, except the decision to remove Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes from circulation, were appealed by the original complainants – Ivie Szalai or Mike Covert or both.
Nineteen Minutes will remain off Beaufort County School District shelves for minimum of five years. It joins It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover, which was the first book removed from the District in January.
Following the vote on the appeals, Board member the board discussed the topic of dropping the number of books reviewed at a time from 10 to five. Victor Ney (District 5) moved to vote on that proposal, seconded by Elizabeth Hey (District 10).
The motion failed by a vote of 7 to 3 to 1, with Rachel Wisnefski (District 7) joining Hey and Ney in support.
A surprise guest
Earlier in the meeting, during the first public comment period, once again several of the DAYLO (Diversity Awareness Literacy Youth Organization) members – Battery Creek senior Isabella Troy, Beaufort Academy senior Elizabeth Foster, Beaufort Academy sophomore Patrick Good, Beaufort High senior Madelyn Confure and Beaufort High senior Millie Bennett – took to the podium to state their opposition to the removal of books.
And in a bit of a surprise, novelist and poet Jason Mott, a guest of the Pat Conroy Center’s Jonathan Haupt and Beaufort’s Nevermore Books, spoke against the removal of books. Mott has authored two collections of poetry and four novels. His fourth novel, 2021’s Hell Of A Book, won the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction.
“Banning books will not make the world’s complexities go away,” Mott told the Board. “We all want to protect our children. We all want to keep them safe. That is why I write and I read books. Because at times in my life, I needed to know that the world was larger than the limits of my eyesight. And books were there. And at other times in my life, I needed to know that the world was populated by books and stories similar to my own. And books were there.
“From what I hear tonight, the children of Beaufort have the same needs. To ban books is to ban stories. It is to ban voices. It is to ban facts. It is to ban ideas and identities. And history has shown us, more than once, that this always leads to trouble.”
Off the rails
Almost immediately after Mott spoke, the meeting descended into chaos.
Julie Matthews, a citizen vocally in favor of at least some some book removals who has been a part of at least one Book Review Committee, addressed the board, singling out several members individually, mentioning several she agreed with and at least one she didn’t.
She then began to address Isabella Troy, one of the high school students who spoke earlier, resulting in a gasp from the audience consisting mostly of the teenagers and a dozen or so like-minded adults. Public speakers are prohibited from personally addressing anyone but Board members. As Matthews continued speaking, members of the audience vocalized their objections to her speaking directly to Troy, though it was almost impossible to determine what she was saying. Annoyed by the interruption, Matthews turned and said, “’Excuse me.”
Board Chair Christina Gwozdz (District 9) instructed the audience to be quiet while Matthews spoke before Board member William Smith (District 3) pointed out that Mathews could not address another speaker.
As Matthews attempted to continue her comments, a man in the back of the room began shouting for the Board to reset Matthews’ time since she was interrupted, again stopping her comments.
“I will continue past my time, regardless,” Matthews told the man.
Seconds later, her three-minute speaking limit elapsed and her microphone was turned off.
“No, no, I was interrupted, I will continue,” Matthews told Gwozdz.
As Gwozdz recessed the Board and they exited the room, Matthews turned toward the audience and began shouting her comments in their direction. In response, some turned their backs, some booed, some laughed, shouted and sang.
When she had finished, Matthews returned to her seat and proceeded to have words with another woman in the audience, while at least one of the high school students had what appeared to be an anxiety attack and left the room in tears to regain her composure.
And then, as quickly as it escalated, it was seemingly over.
The Board returned, and then the next speaker, Ivie Szalai, politely thanked the Board for the opportunity to speak. During her time, while the audience was quiet and composed, she read a passage from the book Sold by Patricia McCormick depicting the sexual assault of a young girl by her sex-trafficking captor. When she finished the passage, Szalai began to list the profanities used in the 10 books last reviewed and told how many times each was used throughout the 10 books collectively.
When her time expired in the middle of this list, she stopped in mid sentence, politely thanked the Board for allowing her to speak, and returned to her seat.
After the meeting, during the second public comment period, Szalai was the first to return to the podium, where she politely thanked the Board for the opportunity to speak, picked up her list of profanities where she had left off, then thanked the Board again and sat down.
Later, two of the DAYLO students – Good and Troy – used their time to apologize for the students’ rowdy reaction. Troy took the opportunity to address Szalai’s list.
“We just heard almost every profanity under the sun,” she said. “And here we are, … not a menace to society.”
Ten more Book review Committees were scheduled to meet at 5:45 p.m., Wednesday, March 15 at Okatie Elementary school.
The books up for review are:
- The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
- The Haters by Jesse Andrews
- The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
- The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins
- This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki
- Tilt by Ellen Hopkins
- Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
Mike McCombs is the Editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.