Op-Ed in San Antonio Express-News
NEISD's book review offers lesson in civility
By Cameron Vickrey
For the Express-News on December 19, 2021
We all know there has been a lot of noise about school boards and school board meetings lately. My own district, North East ISD, is no exception. Many public meetings this year have not been the prettiest display of humanity and civility. Until last week.
I have been digging deep to understand the phenomenon of incivility. I think it must have to do with grief. We are experiencing so much change, and with change can come feelings of loss. I’m learning a lot from an activist and writer Valarie Kaur. In her book, “See No Stranger,” she writes: “Grieving collectively and in community gives us the information to build solidarity to fight for justice and even to share in another’s joy.”
The speakers at the most recent NEISD board meeting concerning the district’s book review didn’t lash out, speak past their time limit, or behave inappropriately. I saw a public expression of grief and genuine concern for the most vulnerable in our community. It was calm, respectful, humble and productive. I even experienced surprising moments of joy as I watched it on YouTube.
The agenda item for this meeting was related to the way North East handled the infamous “Krause list.” A North Texas state representative, Matt Krause, requested information from school districts about 850 books that he suggested had vulgar or inappropriate content. The list contained a wide majority of books written by or about women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
I stand with all 17 of the speakers, who wished the district had done things differently. So where did I find joy in all of this?
I was proud of the school board members, who listened carefully—as they always do—and left their minds and hearts open to their community.
But the brightest spot of joy came from students. About half of the speakers that evening were students or recent graduates from the district. They have been taught the value of using their voice to advocate for themselves and their community. They were brave, well-spoken and poised. We can credit many of the books on the so-called “banned list” for their formation, as well as the very school district they were challenging. They give me hope. And they brought me joy.
I don’t expect to always agree with the decisions that my school district administrators make. In this case, they believed they were acting with integrity, and getting ahead of potential lawsuits. Would I prefer they had shredded the Krause list immediately and not given it the time of day? For sure.
We can’t control what others do or how they do it. But sometimes we can influence. We can vote for statewide and local leaders who support public education. We can also deal with disagreements in a healthy way. We don’t have to accept that this trend of incivility is the new status quo, or that bullies will dominate every conversation.
My support for public schools runs deep and isn’t going to dry up over every disagreement. I was at my wits end over the mask situation (as a pro-masker). I can nitpick at the process that NEISD is going through in its book review. But I have faith they are not out to discount the voices and experiences of non-white and non-straight people. And I’d rather use my voice to model the kind of civic engagement I saw from the students who spoke at the board meeting.
The ways in which we choose to acknowledge our grief and air our grievances matter. When we empathize with another person’s experience, make their concerns ours, and calmly state the facts and the truth as we perceive it, with humility and respect, grief can offer moments of joy, and ultimately, create change.