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

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