KVML Freedom to Read Week: Letter from an Indiana Prison – Hurray for Our Team!

Musings of an imprisoned teacher.

As I’m living in the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) this week, I thought I would let Kurt start my ramblings today with two powerful quotes:

Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.

While on the subject of burning books, I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than have to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles. So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I loved still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

It occurred to me yesterday when I was promoting the reading of poetry that, for these few days of my “incarceration,” I have a temporary but powerful platform, and today I’d like to use it to crow a little bit about the greatness of teachers and librarians.

First, you know that scene in the movie Stand By Me (based on oft-banned author Stephen King’s story, “The Body”) in which Gordie tells us that Vern has been looking for his penny jar for eight months?  He says, “Eight months, man, you didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.” Well, I’ve been a high school English teacher for thirty-six years. Thirty-six years, man . . . sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Anyway, being a teacher is sometimes frustrating and sometimes exhausting, but it is my life’s work, and I’m proud to be a part of this profession. Teachers everywhere make a commitment to change the world for the better, one moment and one student at a time. On the good days, that’s how it feels—like you’ve made a difference. That’s pretty cool!

Brett Stoker with a class of students from Tipton High School.

Though I have the week “off” from school, I have still been teaching. Along with Monday’s remote lesson on Etheridge Knight, we held a panel discussion on free speech issues. The panel consisted of three Tipton students and three of my colleagues, and I was amazed by the thoughtful eloquence of their conversation. Go, Blue Devils! Tuesday afternoon, two of my classes came on a field trip to the KVML. They visited with me, they saw the building and what exhibits are up, they heard Curator Chris Lafave talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s life and work, and some were interviewed by WFYI for an upcoming documentary. More Tipton High School students will follow them in the next two days. As a special treat, my son Riley helped supervise the field trip, and my son Luke drove from DePauw University to join us, too! If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!

Last night at KVML, we heard Lucinda Nord and Chad Heck talk about current trends in libraries, which have changed dramatically in the past couple decades but always stay true to their core mission. Lucinda and Chad also shared the challenges that libraries face today, not only from book banners and censors, but from the corporate greed of publishers, which sometimes extort these benevolent, society-sustaining institutions in order to make a few more bucks. We also met Tonya Franklin, a librarian in Indianapolis for twenty-five years, who signed people up for their library cards (including our own Lauren and Jordan)!

I know that teachers and librarians do different things in different ways, but the goal, it seems to me, is much the same—to make our society better and richer and deeper and more humane. Hurray for our team!

Teachers and librarians are, among other things, gatekeepers to the world of information. They understand the enormous responsibility they have, and they make informed, thoughtful decisions every day about what is beneficial and what is appropriate, and that is one reason that book banners make us so angry. We have already thoughtfully and responsibly considered the big picture—who our students are, what they need, what the book (or poem or story or play or movie) offers, and what the potential problems are. So let us do our job!

Yesterday, I encouraged you to read more poetry! And today, I’m hoping to convince you of the value of teachers and librarians and of schools and libraries, and I’m encouraging you to support them in any way you can.

Support libraries by using them. Libraries are like the gods in Neil Gaiman’s banned book American Gods; they get their power from people’s belief in them. So believe in them! Read their books; attend their events; take advantage of their vast resources of people and material. Your brain and soul will grow because of it, and you will make them stronger. That’s a very good thing.

And support schools by being informed and outspoken citizens of your community. Know what’s going on. Talk to teachers and students and school board members. If you do, I am pretty sure that you’ll discover that two things need to happen. First, politicians and school boards must let schools do what they do best. Enough with testing and mandates and political agendas! And, politicians and school boards must pay teachers better because teacher pay in the state of Indiana (and most states) is embarrassing, and we lose good people from the profession every day because of it. We appreciate your involvement and your help!

Because, you know, hurray for our team!

I thank you for your attention. And I am out of here!

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