When I was in ninth grade, my family moved from Bay City, Michigan to Des Moines, Iowa. As a preacher’s kid, I had grown accustomed to dislocation—changing towns, neighborhoods and schools—but this one was especially difficult.
Ninth grade in Michigan was high school, whereas it was junior high in Iowa. So, when we moved at Thanksgiving that year, I went back to junior high.
I write this not to evoke sympathy but rather to set up the kindness of a teacher who directed me to reading and made the transition easier—something that would be illegal today in Iowa.
I’m not certain I remember the name of my new English teacher (for some reason, Mrs. Bolin comes to mind). But she took me aside shortly after my arrival and suggested I check out a book from the library, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. For those unfamiliar with the book, Styron embroiders the jailhouse confessions of Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher who led an insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831 into a larger narrative about religion and apocalyptic visions, sexuality and the plight of Africans who were enslaved in the antebellum South.
The book was gripping and controversial, then and now—and I devoured it. I had not been much of a reader to that point.
Other than the Bible, books were simply not part of my upbringing. I cannot remember either of my parents sitting down to read a book—aside from the Bible.
I can’t be sure why Mrs. Bolin (if that is her name) directed me to Styron’s Confessions. Perhaps it was because she knew my father was a preacher.
But that was an important moment. I can’t say that it directed my path toward academics as my college transcript would argue otherwise. But her gesture opened my eyes to the world of literature.
In today’s Iowa, sadly, Mrs. Bolin’s actions would likely lead to her arrest.
What was once one of the finest public school systems in the nation has been systematically decimated by Republican supermajorities in both houses of the legislature under the prodding of the governor, Kim Reynolds (also known as Covid Kim for her flaccid response to the coronavirus). Reynolds and her accomplices have been busy easing gun laws, legalizing the sale of fireworks and relaxing legal limits on child labor, including rolling back the limits to how many hours children can work on school nights.
But the governor’s singular accomplishment (if you can call it that) has been to award taxpayer money to families to enroll their children in private, including religious, schools. The First Amendment be damned!
This year, the inaugural year of the voucher program, $144 million of taxpayer funds will be diverted from public education into private schools. In addition, as Marilynne Robinson pointed out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Reynolds signed a law that will limit the number of credits a public school can offer for courses in languages and the arts.
Reynolds signed a bill that requires schools to remove books that depict a “sex act” or discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation. This is all part of an attempt, in the governor’s words, to establish “boundaries to protect Iowa’s children from woke indoctrination.”
School districts are now scrambling to excise books from their curricula and their libraries. Among the censored are Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
I have little doubt that, if it were called to the censors’ attention, The Confessions of Nat Turner would be excluded as well.
Just to be clear: It’s now legal in Iowa to purchase fireworks, to carry a concealed weapon and to allow your teenage child to work in a meatpacking plant. But it’s not okay to check out The Handmaid’s Tale from a school library.
The Iowa of my high school years was a good place of civic-minded leaders—Governor Robert Ray, a Republican, and Senator Harold Hughes, a Democrat, among others—and an educated citizenry. I was proud to call myself an Iowan, a product of its
public schools. Now, I’m embarrassed.
Whatever happened to Iowa?
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.