The Good Book and the Bad Book
At Austin’s elite St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, everything from the architecture to the emphasis on tolerance is designed to reinforce a sense of community. But when an English teacher had her senior class read Brokeback Mountain, a fight between parents over the true meaning of Christian values threatened to tear the close-knit campus apart.
O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power. God, make the door of this house the gateway to Thine eternal Kingdom.—quote on the front doors of the upper school chapel at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, in Austin
TWO TOWERS MARK THE PROPER ENTRANCE to the campus at the St. Andrew’s Episcopal upper school, though both “towers” and “upper” seem to be extravagant terms. “Upper” refers to grades nine through twelve and “towers” to simple, three-story structures with square footprints, constructed in the Hill Country style of so much recent Central Texas architecture: wood, limestone, and a standing-seam metal roof. But the towers’ purpose is grand. The one to the north houses the admissions office, the one to the south the college counselors. This was done by design. “This is where our students come in from the world and where they make their plans to go out,” said Susan Schotz, the head of the upper school, a position better known to public school beneficiaries as a principal. “It’s their beginning and end.” Admiring the symmetry, she added, “Nothing you see here came about by accident.”
Indeed, Lucy Nazro, the head of school at St. Andrew’s for the past 26 years, had an authorial role in conceiving the 73-acre campus on the southwestern outskirts of town. St. Andrew’s is an Austin institution, the place where west-side elites have schooled their kids since 1952, when three local Episcopal churches founded it as the next step up from their own preschool programs. For years the school taught only grades one through six at a campus dotted with old stone houses and live oak trees just west of the University of Texas. Nazro added middle school classes to the primary campus in 1982, then began the upper school project in the mid-nineties. Throughout the expansion, every design decision was made with one paramount goal: to make the upper school campus a reflection of what St. Andrew’s stood for and the way that it educated.
Buildings stretch from the towers in a quadrangle layout—“like the great college campuses,” as the architects noted—and inside the compound, the prevailing aim is to unite the community. Small windows on the classrooms’ perimeter walls are high off the ground and serve only to let in light; the larger windows are on walls that face into the grounds. The classes are grouped by discipline, so that all ages of students walk the breezeways together. Green spaces spill from the classrooms into a huge grassy commons: the Nazro Green, a place for students to congregate that’s meant to emphasize responsible land stewardship. And in the buildings and breezeways encircling the green, cedar trusses and metal bindings are left exposed, as Hill Country style dictates, to suggest honesty in construction. What you see is meant to reflect what you get.
The very placement of the buildings reveals the priorities at St. Andrew’s. The library is located directly across the green from the athletic fields so that kids finishing their sports are immediately reminded of their studies. A relationship with God is intended to be at the center of students’ lives, so the chapel stands at the center of the property, and services take place at the center of the day. With its stained-glass windows and steeply pitched roof, it is the most impressive structure on campus. But what catches the eye is the prayer on the door. The words’ silhouettes were cut out of two dark steel plates that were then laid on glass. When sunlight seeps through the letters, the words look alive: “O God, make the door of this house wide …”
The humanities department—a collegiate alliance of English and history—is near the college counselors’ tower. The building blends perfectly with the rest of the campus, but it conceals a philosophical fissure that almost tore the St. Andrew’s family apart.
Kimberly Horne’s senior English class meets in this building. A 34-year-old Alabamian with a master’s in poetry, Horne has been regarded as one of the school’s finest educators since she arrived here seven years ago. Her classroom walls display a few posters celebrating writers and artists who inspire her. Eugene O’Neill. Robert Frost. Zora Neale Hurston. Donald Judd. “Kimberly knows language,” said Schotz. “She knows what words transmit. She knows there is life in literature and life because of literature. That’s what she teaches the kids.”
But some St. Andrew’s parents have argued that too much life is transmitted in those words. Horne created the senior English curriculum and placed Annie Proulx’s book Brokeback Mountain on the reading list. Just before school ended in 2005, a St. Andrew’s family learned of the Brokeback assignment and, believing that the gay-cowboy love story was wholly incompatible with a Christian education, pulled a $3 million pledge it had made to the school. A second family objected to another book later that fall and wrote a thirteen-page letter accusing the school of assigning “the most vile, graphic, and pornographic adult-themed material.” Later, the letter was mailed anonymously to most St. Andrew’s parents. Suddenly the community Lucy Nazro had so carefully cultivated dissolved into a collection of schisms. Progressives and traditionalists. Liberals and conservatives. And, as some of the school’s critics characterized the split, Episcopalians and Christians.
The battle lines mirrored a much larger fight. The issue of gays’ place in society is at the center of America’s red- and blue-state divide and something the Episcopal Church has publicly wrestled with for more than twenty years. In elections around the country, including Texas, the placement of constitutional amendments prohibiting gay marriage on statewide ballots has brought conservative voters to the polls and helped elect Republican candidates. The church, on the other hand, has counted on its long tradition of inclusion and tolerance to keep congregants with differing opinions working as one Christian family.
Nazro and St. Andrew’s tried to follow the Episcopalian model. But the faiths of some St. Andrew’s parents would not allow compromise. As the two sides split, parents who had been old friends quit talking to one another. Their gossip mill churned out angry stories and accusations. And longtime headmistress Nazro, generally thought to be ready to retire, hunkered down to preserve the community she had spent most of her adult life constructing.
Why would a school, that promises a Christian education environment in its mission statement, and lists moral behavior as one of its core values, have such a story [Brokeback Mountain] in its senior English literature class, past, present, or future? Why would SAS promote classroom discussion on pornographic material concerning deviant behavior?—from Cary McNair’s letter to the St. Andrew’s board of trustees, August 17, 2005
EVEN THOUGH “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’S” cultural moment has passed—months have gone by since anyone’s been heard to bellyache about the Best Picture snub or invent a manliness-neutral reason for not seeing it—the story has taken root in the American mind-set. It was amazing how quickly this occurred. The movie’s opening weekend hadn’t ended before the title entered the vernacular, and if you heard someone mention a “Brokeback” anything, you knew the reference was to a homosexual something. Through that prism it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, in October 1997, “Brokeback Mountain” was an Annie Proulx fiction piece that ran in the New Yorker. While the story won its share of awards and was reprinted in anthologies and as a stand-alone volume, it was certainly not yet a cultural touchstone.
Kimberly Horne found “Brokeback” when it was just another magazine story. Like most early readers, she had no idea what was coming, of the love affair it depicted between two male ranch hands or the misery, fear, and finally death the two men would know as they tried to make sense of their relationship through the course of their lives. Horne says now that her initial reaction was physical: “I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.”
She came to St. Andrew’s in 1999 to teach sophomore English. It was her first teaching job. Two years later she was teaching seniors. She told Hilary Carlson, Susan Schotz’s predecessor as head of the upper school, that she wanted to teach Brokeback to the seniors and asked that Carlson read the story before approving it. The two women realized Brokeback would not be an easy read; it wasn’t written to be one. But they noted that students who read it would be third-trimester seniors doing college-level work. They also believed that in the right environment, with the right teacher, discomfort could breed powerful lessons, in this case an important truth about tolerance. They decided that the students would read and discuss it but not be tested on it.
No problems arose until the spring of 2005, when two St. Andrew’s moms started talking Brokeback at a girls’ softball game. One was Kate McNair. The coming Hollywood film was making its way into the news, but Kate had never heard of the movie or the story; since her three kids were in lower and middle school at the time, she had no reason to know what the seniors were reading. Kate’s friend had a copy of the story and directed Kate to the paragraph in which the two men’s love first gets physical. Kate read the phrase “Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock,” and then saw mentions of “all fours” and “a little spit.” She needed no more. Like Horne’s, her reaction was visceral. She could taste her anger. “We assumed that this was a Christian school,” says McNair now, “and that these kinds of materials would not be handed to our children. We’re not a bunch of homophobes. We just don’t want our kids reading smut.”
Kate called Nazro several days later and arranged a meeting. With Kate and her husband, Cary, was another set of lower- and middle-school parents, pro golfer Ben Crenshaw and his wife, Julie. “They were all really angry,” recalls Nazro. “They said, ‘You need to get rid of that book. It has no place in this school.’” Nazro was surprised. She admitted she hadn’t read the book, pointing out that with twelve grades under her charge, she couldn’t read every single assignment. She read Brokeback before a second meeting, which also went nowhere. Nazro said she would consider their concerns over the summer.
Through June and July, Nazro searched for an answer. She talked to the head of the accrediting network of private schools to which St. Andrew’s belongs. She talked to the dean of the Episcopal seminary in Austin. She talked to teachers and parents. She even talked to several national Episcopal leaders. Most of them counseled, and she agreed, that the school’s policy for selecting books should determine the school’s answer. Schotz says the key is prudence, and it’s up to the educators to ask the right questions: Is it the right book for that age of student? Does it fit within the year’s curriculum? Will it move students to the next skills level? St. Andrew’s trusts its educators to make that decision. Nazro decided that the answers to the long summer’s questions were the same as when Horne and Carlson first considered the book: yes, yes, and yes. At the end of July she informed the McNairs and the Crenshaws that the book would continue to be taught.
Nazro knew the decision carried ramifications beyond parents with bent noses and kids transferring schools. The McNairs—Cary is a film producer and the son of billionaire Houston Texans owner Robert McNair—had pledged $3 million to the school’s building fund, a generous enough gift that their name would be attached to a new wing of classrooms for the upper school. A few days after Nazro made her decision, Kate told Kathryn Runnells, the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, that the family didn’t want its name on a building at an institution that supported pornography and homosexuality—and that the school should start looking for another source of funds. Cary echoed Kate’s comments in a letter he sent the board in mid-August.
News of the burgeoning rift spread quickly through the close-knit community, with most of the parents rallying behind Nazro. At parents’ night the next week, she received a standing ovation when she delivered her welcoming address, and her office overflowed with flowers sent by supporters. Just as conspicuous was Kate McNair, passing out xeroxed copies of Brokeback in the hallways.
In mid-September, the school released the McNairs from their $3 million commitment, and, as it turned out, replacement funds were found by the end of October. The St. Andrew’s faculty and other Austin teachers scrounged up small contributions. A couple of St. Andrew’s families added $30,000 and $100,000 to existing pledges. After a front-page story in the Austin American-Statesman had made the rounds on the Internet, smaller donations in amounts from $15 to $1,000 came in from around the country. Then Houston’s Brown Foundation gave the school $1 million, and a St. Andrew’s family anonymously kicked in the $1.5 million needed to make up the rest. When the money was counted, the school had actually netted an additional million dollars.
But the battle was over values, not money. Critics started to see the school as one more microbus in the caravan of godless Austin liberalism. In their meetings with Nazro, the McNairs objected to the school’s participating in the National Day of Silence, an annual event in which students and teachers opt not to speak for a day in recognition of people who are without a voice in society. The idea was to make kids think about gays and lesbians, but Nazro expanded it to include race and religion. That didn’t fly with the critics. The McNairs protested the school’s failure to observe the National Day of Prayer. Nazro explained that the kids pray in chapel every day. Critics also bristled at the school’s decision not to sponsor a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter. Nazro said the school had decided that the FCA wasn’t sufficiently inclusive, adding that a Bible study group had been formed instead.
Parents went in and out of Nazro’s office to voice their concerns. The conversations grew heated. These were parents who were paying $10,000 to $15,000 in annual tuition, and they wanted their voices heard. Most parents tried to keep their cool, but old friends grew hostile as the factions hardened. I talked to two lower school dads on different sides of the issue who were unique not only in their willingness to be quoted but also in the fact that they had managed to remain friendly. They’re both from ranching families—Steve Baker is a commercial cattleman and Mike Reynolds is a King Ranch heir—and over the phone they even sounded alike. But they had widely different takes on the controversy.
“I told people about country boys working on my ranch who spent what would have been their senior years in Iraq,” said Baker. “If you want to talk about a senior year exposed to the horror of adult situations, those boys can. If all we have to worry about is whether our seniors can understand these books, that makes me think, ‘What a wonderfully sheltered situation we have.’”
Baker’s friend Reynolds makes a similar point, but to the opposite end. “I had a cousin who wanted to see what Mace felt like so he had one of our security guards spray him in the face. I guess some people think every kid needs to be exposed to some of the things in a book like Brokeback before they go off to an Ivy League school. I don’t happen to agree.”
Parents like Baker tried to make peace. “The McNairs are wonderful people,” he said. “And so are the Crenshaws. My daughter played softball with their daughter, and I saw their angst. It was genuine.
“But you know,” he added, “I am a forty-seven-year-old product of Goose Creek Independent School District, in Baytown, Texas, and I was raised to call the Civil War the War Between the States. If I decided that was the way to teach these kids, and I was a big donor, could I have dictated that?”
For the McNairs, it wasn’t so simple. Or maybe it was. “When we caught wind of Brokeback Mountain, there was no way to convince us that this was okay,” says Kate. “It’s like trying to convince me that there’s no God. We expected our friends to have as strong a commitment and faith as we did. I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That’s my faith.
“But we came to find out this was not a Christian school. It’s Episcopal. And shame on me for not knowing what the Episcopal Church has gone through the past few years. If they took the word ‘Christian’ out of their mission statement, that would be different. But they won’t.
“And they messed with us.”
Episcopalians, like all Christians, believe that our life is founded on the life of Jesus and that as a church we are called to offer the redeeming love of God in Christ to all people. Episcopal schools are a concrete expression of the church’s care for young people and their families, and of the belief that God calls us to love all God’s children. —from Lucy Nazro’s parents’ night address, August 2005
THE FIRST IMPRESSION LUCY NAZRO typically gives is, “Here is somebody’s favorite teacher.” Her clothes are comfortably rumpled and complemented with arts-and-crafts jewelry and reading glasses colored with Pollock-like splatters. Her short salt-and-pepper hair is always neatly in place, and her narrow eyes broadcast openness. Short and tan, she’s the kind of person you instinctively want to hug, not because she looks like she needs it but because she looks like someone whose hug might help you.
In her small office on the lower school campus, bookshelves and tabletops are covered with novels, Bibles, prayer books, stacks of papers, construction site hard hats, and photos of family and students—two groups who are, for her, one and the same. There’s no pride in her voice when she discusses the school’s stand, but there is an air of fatigue and frustration. “I had people say to me last fall, ‘Lucy, you’ve got to lead us through this,’ and that’s the way I felt. And I led by explaining what it means to be an Episcopal school. We’re a school where emphasis is on reason and open inquiry, on inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. An Episcopal school is basically modeled on love.
“I think the word ‘Christian’ has been captured,” she continues. “Maybe in some people’s minds a Christian school would not teach Brokeback Mountain. In my mind, being Christian is in how you treat people. I think it’s important to open up the world like Kimberly does. What we’re hoping will happen is kids will learn about the world, its hurt and its brokenness, and then go out and try to make it a better place.”
She was raised Episcopalian in Waco, the state’s Baptist capital, and likes to joke that she had to learn to spell her denomination’s name for herself. She graduated from the University of Texas in 1959, then spent three years using Bible stories to teach English at an Episcopal school in Japan. She returned to Austin to study at the Episcopal seminary, thinking that would make her a better teacher. There she met and married another seminarian, Phil Nazro, and in 1966 became the first woman to graduate from the school. She did not become a priest; another eleven years would pass before the Episcopal Church started ordaining women. But Phil was ordained, and the two of them spent the next fourteen years running churches in Texas and Florida and raising four kids. In 1980 Lucy took the head-of-school job at St. Andrew’s, and the family moved to Austin.
At the time the school taught 298 kids in grades one through six and was thought by many to offer the best elementary education in Austin. One of Lyndon Johnson’s daughters had gone there, and during Nazro’s tenure so had the Bush twins and Michael Dell’s kids. When Nazro arrived, a consensus already existed to add junior high classes. Parents saw a marked decline in the quality of learning when their kids moved to public middle schools. The only option at that time for further Episcopal education was St. Stephen’s, a seventh-through-twelfth-grade school with a boarding component that St. Andrew’s parents felt precluded the kind of community they wanted. At St. Andrew’s, the students’ moms were fixtures on campus as volunteers during the day, and after school the families entertained one another in their homes and met new teachers at Nazro’s house on campus.
St. Andrew’s purchased land adjacent to the original classrooms in 1981, and the middle school opened a year later at a cost of $500,000, a pittance compared with the $18 million price tag for land and construction of the upper school sixteen years later. The presence of older kids offered Nazro an opportunity to build on one of the school’s key Episcopal
tenets: the idea of service. Younger kids had always taken part in activities like food drives, but the older kids were able to perform more-personal acts. “We take the kids into the community two days a week,” Nazro says. “They’ll go do some tutoring at an elementary school or help at a nursing home.”
Religious instruction was limited to the mandatory daily chapel services and a seventh-grade theology class taught by Nazro. Some parents complained that that was not enough, but others gave thanks. This was not a school where students learned that the square root of nine was three because that was part of God’s plan.
I first encountered St. Andrew’s and Nazro in the spring of 1990, when I coached the boys’ basketball B-team. The A-team had the kids who could actually play; I took the kids who wore jeans to practice and had nicknames like Shorty. Nazro showed up at many of the practices, and we visited a few times. But mostly she spoke with the players, and judging from their casual way with her, I figured that getting close to them was a big part of how she ran her school.
That is not my only connection to St. Andrew’s. The Nazros knew my father, an Episcopal priest who started teaching at the seminary shortly after they left. He was friendly with both of them, as he was with the chaplains at St. Andrew’s—most of whom had been his students—and many of the parents. When he died, in 2004, a family donated a piano to the school in his name. If he had still been alive when the controversy began, he likely would have been involved. One of his roles in Austin’s Episcopal world was to mediate disputes within churches, which often involved the denomination’s openness to gays. My dad’s approach was similar to Nazro’s: Bring the two sides together, insist they show each other respect, and encourage them to agree to disagree but ultimately adhere to the church’s position of tolerance.
None of that was on Nazro’s mind when the upper school opened in 1998, though she was already finding ways to expand the school’s Episcopal identity. St. Andrew’s began requiring two days of community service a week for freshmen and sophomores and offered an elective of one hundred hours of community service for juniors and seniors, including one 2-week project in a community dramatically different from their own. Nazro also felt a responsibility to introduce Episcopal values in the classroom. These kids were mature enough to grasp the ideas. The humanities department was the place to do it.
Charlie Cook, a friend of the Nazros’ from their days at the seminary—he’s an esteemed professor there now—has consulted with Lucy throughout her tenure, and he describes the Episcopal philosophy that informs humanities classes: “Think of a dirt road. The toughest place to make your way is right down the middle. If you can get in the ruts on either side, everything will be smooth. The middle is where the weeds and the rocks are. That’s where you’ll have to slow down and think about how you’ll deal with those obstacles. Life’s a whole lot easier when it’s black and white. The Episcopal Church deals with grays. And that makes some people uncomfortable.”
It was probably inevitable that, as Episcopal thought assumed a larger place in the classroom, the growing pains the school felt would concern the discomfort Cook describes. Ultimately Brokeback was assigned to some kids with parents who, like the McNairs, practiced a faith that couldn’t be reconciled with the Episcopal view. Some critics claim that St. Andrew’s never advertised its Episcopal grays, that parents like the McNairs were misled. Kate says she just misunderstood. Either way, the school’s supporters say that once the family realized the school was not what they wanted, they should have quietly taken their children elsewhere.
That was not how Nazro felt. “I would never say, ‘Go somewhere else,’” she says. “I wanted us all to be under the same tent, but I couldn’t pull it off.
“I wish people were open to the possibilities this story gives families to talk. Parents can say, ‘I don’t agree with this being on the curriculum, but you’re about to go off to college, and you may read something like this there. You will come across people different from you. And I want to be here to talk to you about that now.’ Some of our parents did that, and it was good for them to put their own value systems around it.”
But some families had value systems with no place for a book like Brokeback. Nazro was never going to be able to make those people happy.
Do not behave as a collective group of clueless and ignorant smiling sycophants, convinced everything has always been perfect, always is perfect, and always will be perfect before your school is ruined by an administration that gives a blank stamp of approval to curriculum, then shields those who elicit controversy behind its skirts, eschews debate, and discourages dialogue all the while hoping problems will eventually go away if ignored, intimidated, or patronizingly smiled upon.—from Ron and Mary Ann Bowling’s letter to the St. Andrew’s board of trustees, January 20, 2006
WHEN THE BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN CONTROVERSY BEGAN, Ron and Mary Ann Bowling, self-described “hardheaded Lutherans,” had already seen their son graduate from St. Andrew’s, but their three daughters were still enrolled there. Strong in their faith, the Bowlings were already concerned about the school. Mary Ann had objected to a showing of the PG film Holes in her third-grade daughter’s class in 2004 and to a field trip the class took to a Hindu temple the next year. But her protests didn’t have near the impact of the McNairs’ withdrawn pledge.
The Bowlings are not like the McNairs. Though Mary Ann volunteered at the school, she and Ron, who owns a construction company, did not run with the St. Andrew’s crowd, nor were they major donors. He is a big, good-looking guy with a dark mustache that shows some gray, and he favors low-crowned ball caps. Mary Ann, a petite blonde with a long, pretty face and pale blue eyes, helps Ron with the company. When I met them in their two-story limestone house not far from the upper school, we talked at a cluttered breakfast table next to a busy kitchen; son Jeremiah has gone to college, but the three Bowling girls, Rachel, Hannah, and Abby, are still home. The Bowlings are a solid family and seemed like sweet people, but on the topic of St. Andrew’s, which is all we discussed, they could not hide their anger. It appeared to have been a long while since they’d tried.
As the McNair flap started to blow up in the summer of 2005, the Bowlings’ oldest daughter, Rachel, was preparing to begin her senior year and was assigned to Ms. Horne’s class. Knowing that Rachel was going to read Brokeback Mountain, Mary Ann read it first. “And I thought, ‘This is a really stupid book.’ Obviously, it’s teaching you about homosexuality, but that’s not the issue. It’s poorly written, and, if anything, it made me less sympathetic to these two guys. They don’t pay attention to what they ought to be doing, which is tending the sheep, and you get the feeling that if the other person wasn’t there they’d be doing it with the sheep. They don’t seem connected to each other. And then they don’t even have the guts to—I mean, they both take wives? So now they screw up other people’s lives? I was just like, ‘I don’t get why the school is using this book.’”
But Brokeback wouldn’t be read until the spring trimester, and the Bowlings decided to bide their time. Rachel was a star in academics and sports. A National Merit Scholar with a better-than-perfect 4.2 GPA, she was also a team captain in basketball and cross-country, and before having surgery on both knees, she ran six-and-a-half-minute miles. She’s a tall, athletic redhead with olive-green eyes and a complete unawareness of how attractive she is.
Initially, English was the class Rachel most looked forward to. “Ms. Horne is a good teacher,” she says now. “She really enriched a book, made certain meanings a lot more clear.” Horne in turn calls Rachel a gorgeous writer, a quiet girl who, when she did talk, put a lot of thought into her comments.
Things went south between them well before the spring Brokeback assignment. It happened during the October reading of The God of Small Things. The novel by Arundhati Roy tells of the horrific effect a visiting relative has on a family in India. The passage that offended the Bowlings would be hard for anyone to read. A small boy is sent out of a movie theater for singing along with The Sound of Music. In the lobby, a man at the concession stand masturbates himself with the boy’s hand. No detail is left to the imagination.
Rachel showed the page to her mother, who was shocked. She and Ron set up a conference with Schotz and Horne. It quickly became clear there was no common ground. The Bowlings asked for an alternative assignment—“I said, ‘Give her the encyclopedia,’” said Ron. “‘Make her write a report on each dadgum volume. We don’t care’”—but Schotz said the curriculum was fixed and that while parents could have input, final choices were made by the school’s educators. That didn’t help, nor did Horne’s point that the book had won the prestigious Booker Prize. Mary Ann shot back, “If I bring you the Penthouse Forum and say it received an award, can we teach that next?” She found herself thinking, “Do we tell our daughter to ignore her values and the way she’s been brought up and just go along with all of this?”
Then, as the Bowlings tell it, Ron leaned across the table, pointed at Horne, and raised his voice, “You’ve exposed our daughter to pornography.”
“It’s not pornography,” Schotz said, invoking the legal definition of intention to titillate.
“Fine,” continued Ron, “you’ve exposed her to garbage—my word. And that’s wrong!”
Horne started to cry, and the meeting soon ended.
Back in Horne’s class, discussions of the book went on as scheduled, and Rachel denounced the assignment. “Everybody said, ‘You have to read this to know about the world,’” she told me. “I said it’s not necessary to read the details. I know that this happens, and I feel horror and disgust just watching the news. Reading this book doesn’t make me feel enlightened.”
Rachel grew increasingly distressed by the classroom discussions. She decided to boycott the class while the book was being discussed, a move her parents supported provided she talk with Horne first. One morning, Rachel found Horne in the humanities office, a suite shared with seven other teachers, and said she needed to speak with her alone. They stepped into the breezeway. “I told her I don’t think it’s her role to teach evil in English. I said I want to choose what gets put in my head.” Rachel announced she would not attend class that day, which Horne informed her was not a matter of choice. Then Rachel turned up the volume: “There are other people who feel this way!” The McNairs were mentioned, and Horne said that that issue was settled, adding (although the exact words are in dispute), “There are other schools …” Horne sent Rachel to Schotz’s office.
Another controversy was brewing, and at chapel that day, a senior girl felt compelled to stand and declare her love for the school. The Bowlings, wondering who was rallying behind Rachel, attended another meeting, at which Mary Ann’s frustration took a leap forward. “Rachel had just done something completely out of character,” Mary Ann recalled, “and there was no concern for her. I said, ‘Rachel feels totally impotent in this situation, and I’m concerned. Kids get depressed.’ And the chaplain said, ‘I can recommend some counselors.’ I thought, ‘What? That’s nice. I can open a phone book too.’”
The Bowlings were determined to make a bigger statement to the school. They produced what came to be known as “the Bowling letter,” a thirteen-page, single-spaced declaration of outrage. It was written in a measured tone but with a degree of detail that revealed how personal the conflict had grown. They complained that afternoon phone calls to Schotz were not returned until the next morning and described the late hours they had stayed up agonizing over the book. But they also made points about the school’s unclear explanation about whether the two books were optional reading. Students weren’t tested on Brokeback but they were on The God of Small Things.
The Bowlings mailed the letter to the homes of Nazro, Schotz, Horne, and the chaplain at the start of Christmas break. The school responded by moving Rachel to a different English class without consulting the Bowlings, making the family even madder. Then the Bowlings took the conflict to another level.
In late January, just before the school sent contract renewals to parents for the next school year, the thirteen-page letter was mailed anonymously to every upper- and middle-school family. “I had e-mailed it to a couple of people,” said Mary Ann, “and two moms said, ‘This is important. We need to get this out.’” Mary Ann told them she was opposed to a mass e-mail and cautioned them not to mail the letter from near their houses. “I was like, ‘You know, the zip code. Maybe you should go downtown.’” But Mary Ann insists she did not stuff or address any envelopes, and the school never learned who the other moms were. The Bowlings’ signatures were left on their thirteen-page letter, but an unsigned two-paragraph cover page was attached that concluded, “Consider all this as you choose the path for your child to follow on their educational journey.”
The McNair flap had appeared to be over, but the two sides were still simmering, waiting for any provocation to work back to a boil. The Bowling letter did that and then some, and it left Nazro in a tight spot. What should have been a private matter between the Bowlings and the school now had to be addressed before the entire community. With board chairman Runnells, Nazro drafted a letter explaining the school’s curriculum that went out after the renewals. (After another unproductive conference with the Bowlings, Nazro decided not to offer the family a renewal contract for the next school year, another slight in their eyes.) And Schotz, with Nazro, held a series of meetings with parents to discuss the curriculum. Concerned parents asked questions about the school’s direction, and student defenders of Horne got involved too. They printed up “I Heart Ms. Horne” bumper stickers. Soon these were all over the school, on cars in the parking lot and on laptops and lockers.
Then a faculty member inserted himself into the battle. John Works, an eleventh-grade English teacher, had been criticized in the Bowling letter, though not by name. At the time, he was dating and living with Horne. He decided to reply to the Bowlings, and Horne proofread the response. “I wasn’t going to tell him what to do,” she said, “whether I had strong feelings or not. He was going to do what he needed to do.”
If what he needed to do was to write this letter, he’d have been better served by following the old writer’s cliché and saving it for his next novel. Works berated the Bowlings for not identifying him. “Are you afraid to speak up to me? I am left to believe that you have no brains, or no courage, or no shame.” He called their behavior “vile beyond description” and wrote that Christianity was “a term that becomes unrecognizable in your hands.” To the Bowlings’ claim that he should have supported Rachel in her rebellious acts, Works wrote, “Here are some ‘rebels’ in our history—Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, and the Ku Klux Klan… . According to your reasoning, I should ‘applaud the fortitude’ of these people. I don’t. Nor do I ‘applaud the fortitude’ of you or your daughter.”
When Nazro found out about the letter, she immediately summoned Works. He offered his resignation, but she refused to accept it. “I told him I wished he hadn’t written [the letter],” said Nazro, “and that if anyone asked, I’d say, ‘He didn’t ask permission, and if he had, I’d have said no.’”
The crisis in the community had taken on a life of its own. Critics charged that gays on the faculty were pushing a homosexual agenda. Some said classes were segregated according to the parents’ political leanings, while others said conservatives were not welcome at all and that conservative kids speaking in class were stopped mid-sentence by liberal teachers. School supporters said that some critics had openly threatened to destroy Nazro. Parents made claims that sounded like they came straight out of seventh-grade mouths. One parent told me that if critics thought Brokeback was smut, they needed to start watching better porn. In post-school-year e-mails, Mary Ann was still railing about “Mr. Jerks,” “Ms. Porne,” and “The God of Small Dicks.”
The controversy brought national attention, good and bad, to the school. The American Library Association awarded Nazro and Runnells a prize for intellectual freedom. In an online exchange about St. Andrew’s at
VirtueOnline.org, a Web site billing itself as “The Voice of Global Orthodox Anglicanism,” a message board post read: “The day some fairie tries to seduce or touch a member of my family is the day he will Meet His Maker.” The writer suggested that the school’s burning down would be a just end to the controversy.
The end Nazro looked to was the end of the school year. The graduation ceremony was mercifully quiet. The McNair kids had left St. Andrew’s. Rachel apologized to Horne and graduated with distinction as a scholar and an athlete. She was planning to attend Texas A&M University, where she placed out of nearly a full year’s worth of classes, including four English courses. Her younger sisters, meanwhile, were preparing to go to other schools.
At St. Andrew’s, Horne readied the next year’s reading list, with Arundhati Roy but without Annie Proulx. Horne doesn’t generally teach books that have recently been made into big Hollywood movies. It wasn’t removed from the list last year because the curriculum had been set before the film came out.
Nazro took two short trips to Galveston but spent the rest of the summer in her office. Despite the dispute, she said, St. Andrew’s had met its annual fund-raising goal of $500,000. Only 18 students of the upper school’s enrollment of 289 would not be returning the following year, right at the annual attrition rate of 6 percent. Citing exit interviews with parents, she figured the school lost a handful of students as a result of the controversy. She also said 55 eighth-graders would be moving to the upper school, the second highest total ever. Given the furor of the past fourteen months, their parents should know what to expect when they get there.
There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.—the last sentence of Brokeback Mountain
EVERY ONE OF US HAS A FAVORITE TEACHER in our past, and if we’re lucky, we remember a favorite moment with that teacher. Good teachers know the way into our heads, but the best ones do something more. They manage to push past what we think and take up space in the place where we feel. No teacher can do that with every lesson; that’s what makes the moment it happens unforgettable. Nor can any teacher do it with every student. A level of maturity is required of the kid, a measure of desire, the right material, and at least a little openness.
This story should have been about that moment. That’s what Kimberly Horne was hired to do at St. Andrew’s. I talked with her and Nazro one day in Nazro’s office. School was almost out, and Horne was already dressed for summer in flip-flops, a loose skirt and T-shirt, and a thin denim jacket. Her manner was sure but her eyes looked tired.
I knew Horne had been walked through a practice interview, and when I asked her early on about the moral component of the humanities classes, she looked around the room as if she were trying to remember where she’d put the right answer. She ran her shaking hands through her long brown hair. “We want the kids to learn as much as they can about the discipline,” she said finally, “something that will prepare them to do well in the liberal arts format.”
I tried to coax a discussion of the story. Her initial answers were as awkward as my questions. But then Nazro handed her a copy of Brokeback. Horne’s hands stopped shaking.
“So how do you teach it?” I asked.
“Well, the point of the story is language,” she said, glancing at Nazro. “I really try to get the students to realize that. And to prepare them for difficult conversations and situations involving people that are very different from them.”
“But how do you teach it?”
Her eyes narrowed and her shoulders rose as she drew a deep breath, and then, exhaling, she dropped her shoulders, dipped her head, and opened the book. “We start at the first paragraph of the story, the one in italics,” she said, “and we talk about realism.” She looked up. “The kids should know what that is by the end of their senior years, how realistic language will show—what’s the word—the seedier side of things. I use the example of All in the Family. It was the first TV show to have a toilet flushing in the background. That’s because people actually do that. But it was scandalous to put it on TV back then.” She lowered her head and looked back at the book.
“So we talk about the language, the incredible detail, the powerful verbs. I try to point out something that struck me and ask the students to point out what they saw. I particularly like this sentence.” She started to read. “‘The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand.’ I ask, ‘Can you hear the sound of metal and sand? What word in the sentence grabbed you? What detail?’”
She held the book in her lap and looked up again. “We talk about the difference between abstraction and specifics. Abstractions are easy, they’re not very powerful, they can be quite empty. You can talk about courage, love, patriotism, hate, good, evil; all those things mean different things to different people. But once you talk about patriotism as a flag-draped coffin … there’s a difference there.”
She was no longer looking at Nazro. “We talk about every writer’s challenge: getting the reader to finish the story.” She gestured with the book, indicating that that challenge persists even when the reading is assigned. “A writer does that by making you care about the characters and what’s going to happen. So here we are at St. Andrew’s. We’re not Wyoming sheepherders. How does Proulx get us to invest in these guys?
“All I can show is what worked for me.” She reopened the book. “First is the description of them. ‘They’re inured to the stoic life.’ What sticks out is the hardships they’ve lived through. They’re ‘high school dropout country boys with no prospects … ’ The other line I love is about Ennis. ‘He had wanted to be a sophomore, he felt the word carried a kind of distinction.’ That’s laughable to a high school senior.”
She flipped further. “They get to know each other through talking and that makes them real. ‘They were respectful of each other’s opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected.’ Their lives are detailed in a way that suggests they haven’t been able to talk to anyone before. They’re incredibly lonely people. So I say to the kids, ‘We’ve all been lonely, maybe not to this extent, but that’s the power of good writing. These guys are real.’”
“How does the gay part come up?” I asked.
“I don’t go straight to that. And it comes up differently each year. But we talk about what it means in the world of the story. What happens as a result of their intimacy? How does Proulx write about it? Is it romantic? Because it’s not. It’s awkward.”
“What do the kids say when it happens?”
“They’re shocked. And what I try to do is show them where you see it coming. Like when the older Ennis wakes up dreaming of Jack at the beginning of the story.”
“And the word ‘cock’?”
“I ask, ‘What’s a dirty word? Is it gratuitous? Is Proulx trying to titillate?’ The students know the difference. No kid has ever said that this language is meant to excite. Yes, it makes us uncomfortable, so how do we talk about that? How do we confront situations where the language is hard to say? What are our choices? To be silent? To leave it at giggling?”
“And if there’s a moral to the story then that compensates for the discomfort,” I said.
“I never go into a moral because that’s what the kids always want, that little soundbite to tie to a book and then move on. I try to tell them the easy answer is not always available.
“We talk about the themes. To me the most powerful line in Brokeback is the last one: ‘If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.’ If you have to fix something, then something is broken. So what is it? I read it to mean that Jack and Ennis are broken. But why? Are they broken because of who they are? Or are they broken because of the world they live in? I ask if the students have ever been in a situation in which they couldn’t fix something. Usually they say no. But what if you were? What would that do to your life?
“I’m not trying to get the kids to grow up in one day,” she said, closing the book. “But Brokeback is a model for them.” She held out the book in front of her and nodded at it. “Someone in this book is presumably hit upside the head with a tire iron and killed. I don’t worry that any of my students are going to grow up and hit anyone with a tire iron. But I think we can break each other in smaller ways. So if we live in a broken world, what part do we play in it?”
Horne threw out the question and let it sit in the middle of the room. Soon enough the talk moved to the McNairs and the Bowlings and prudence and bumper stickers. But when the interview ended, her broken-world question was the thing that lingered.