June 03, 2023

COLUMN: The potential reward is bigger than the threat

The fascinating thing about education is you don’t know what will make a kid click in the classroom, especially when it comes to reading.

I remember reading “Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing,” by Judy Blume, probably when I was in fourth grade. It’s a comedy based on an elementary kid’s life. I really liked the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series when the kid-reader makes a decision about which way the plot goes. Brilliant idea.

Then came “Where the Sidewalks Ends,” a compilation of clever poetry, also kid friendly, by Shel Silverstein. There were more books before I reached the point I was comfortable reading. It wasn’t on the same level as eating vegetables.

I wonder if Toby Price’s actions had the same influence on his kids as the books I referred to and what they did for me.

Price was an assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School in Byram, Mississippi, and read the book “I Need a New Butt!” to second graders. Price was a pinch-hitter reader as the scheduled person was unable to attend. He picked the book produced by Dawn McMillan and illustrator Ross Kinnaird from his shelf. It wasn’t the first time he read the book in a school setting.

Not long after the reading session, which was also on Zoom, was over the school principal questioned whether his book choice was appropriate. It contained cartoon butts and referred to passing gas. Days later, the superintendent of the Hinds County School District, Delesicia Martin, dismissed Price. He appealed the termination at school board hearings.

Price’s lawyer’s told him the firing was upheld and included how, “Mr. Price’s contract should be terminated due to his incompetence, neglect of duty, and for good cause.” Two board members voted in favor; one member voted against; and the two others had abstained. I’d like to know the reason for the two abstain votes.

According to the Washington Post, Price said he was stunned when he was called to meet with the superintendent and given the choice to sign a resignation paper or be fired pending appeal.

Price plans to appeal. The next step is Mississippi’s Chancery Courts. The state Supreme Court could come later.

The book is purely what it is; a comedy written and illustrated at a child’s level. In its report, the school board stated the book contained “pictures of child and adult nudity and inappropriate actions.”

Others say there is nothing graphic; nothing you’d expect to see in a university med-school classroom. It’s intended to get and retain a kid’s attention at their level and in a lighthearted tone ....for reading.

In the story, a boy thinks he’s broken his backside and looks for another one.

The Hinds County School District, however, did not find such art funny. “First and foremost, the book contains statements and cartoon pictures regarding bodily anatomy, bodily functions and removing clothing to expose private areas of the body in various positions,” in a statement released after an appeal hearing. “These statements and pictures are inappropriate for an educator to read and display to second graders, especially without advance notice to the teachers of the students.”

There are not any parents who have formally complained about the book.

I do wonder if the board ever thought if those kids watched the Christmas classic movie “A Christmas Story” which implies foul language and depicts bullying. Kids will be exposed to things, intentionally or not, to things adults and parents may not be comfortable. It’s a part of growing up. Learning how to handle it is the real lesson.

Price is now a substitute at a nearby, private Christian school. Price and wife have teenage children, two autistic and one bipolar. A GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $125,000 for the family. He’s also getting support from organizations that back freedom of expression and didn’t question Price.

But what about the kids he read the book to? I’ll try and be objective. Chances are many of the kids who heard the book probably won’t remember that book and moment long term. They are second graders. But, like with any other statistic, there is also the chance a kid may have used that incident to have a better, optimistic, genuinely interested attitude in reading.

And nothing else would have done the same.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.