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Chester County Press

Editorial: Fear.

08/29/2023 12:43PM ● By Richard Gaw

So it all went down last Tuesday night in Oxford, a nearly four-and-a-half-hour-long meeting to determine the fate of four books in the Oxford Area School District, and in a larger sense, to eliminate -- or further accentuate – the fear of a few to undermine the freedom of choice for the many and the right of an individual to construct the way he or she wishes to live.

Turning their backs on the advice of the district’s 12-person advisory committee – who overwhelmingly recommended that these books not be removed -- the school district’s board voted to completely ban The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky from district libraries; and to move The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Lucky by Alice Sebold to a “professional” section of the district’s library system, where only staff and faculty will have access to it. After much debate, the board voted to keep The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas in the library.

This charade of indecency, masqueraded as an effort to protect our children from objectionable language and sensitive themes like rape and homosexuality, was such a gross misuse of power that it may go down in the annals of the Oxford Area School District as the worst moment in its history.  

With one deferential wave of a vote on Aug. 22, the decision of the Oxford Area School District Board to wipe most of these books away from the hands of students was another notch in the continuous dismantling of the American to think freely, rationalize and self-educate.

According to a recent report by PEN America -- a literary and free expression advocacy organization -- school districts in 26 states banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. Over that nine-month period, the organizations listed 1,586 instances of individual books banned across the nation that affected 1,145 unique book titles, 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and nine translators. The bans came from 86 school districts that represented 2,899 schools.

In perfect step with the Oxford Area School District’s ruling on Aug. 22, Pennsylvania is second in the nation – behind only Texas – with the highest number of banned books – 456 to be exact across nine districts.

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We have become a nation whose direction increasingly comes from an ultra-conservative minority using the war stick of fear as their weapon of choice, and one by one, the bricks of our democracy are crumbling before our eyes and our children’s lives: the fear of those who do not look like us; the fear of those who do not love like us; the fear of those who think differently than us; the fear of those who do not worship like us; and the fear of those who do not think like us.

In its place, we are a nation of new laws that already – and aim to -- erase the vestiges of our freedom to assemble in peaceful protest without recourse; to choose the course of our own bodies; to render our editorialized thoughts and opinions without evisceration and censorship; and yes, for the right of a teenager to enter a school library and have access to any book, film or data he or she chooses.

Fear, in the form that was rendered into policy by the Oxford Area School District board last Tuesday evening, is the latest in a long line of censorship that has attempted to keep young adults from some of our greatest books, which while controversial and profane in content and not for the hands and eyes of small children, are without question masterpieces of literature: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, Native Son, The Color Purple, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Diary of a Young Girl and the Bible, to list a few.

While it remains the ferocious determination of a loud minority to continue slicing away at the right for a young adult to access these books, they do so against the vivacious backdrop of a majority chorus that will not stop. Many of those voices were present at the Aug. 22 meeting, as well as a recent work session on Aug. 8, when a mother of a fourth grader in the district stood up and addressed the board.

“Judy Blume, the celebrated children’s book author who many of us here have read, once said, ‘It’s not just the books that are under fire now that worry me. It’s the books that will never be read, and all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers,’” she said, quoting Blume.

“There is one word in that statement that stands out for me: Fear,” she continued. “In watching the latest book ban debate – with many of those books focused on topics like race, gender, equality and sexuality – I notice that it boils down to exactly that, fear. Whether it is fear of educating our students to have free-thinking ideas, fear of them knowing that ideas exist that you may not agree with, or fear of those ideas yourself, I noticed that fear plays a big part in this discussion.

“If I don’t teach my child to face his fears and learn about them – be they about spiders, or different lifestyles, the harm of slavery, thunderstorms and the rights of sexual assault survivors, then I am doing him a great disservice. If you allow our schools to not teach those same values like diversity, acceptance and learning to value all others, then our district is doing a great disservice, not just to our students but to our community and our country as a whole.”