texasmonthly.com: Were you able to maintain neutrality while people were telling their side of the story? Did you react differently to one side or another?
JS: Like I said in the story, the fact that I onced worked at St. Andrew’s for about six weeks didn’t have a whole lot of bearing on anything. St. Andrew’s seemed like a nice enough place, but it wasn’t a big formative experience for me, and I doubt it was for any of those unfortunate kids that were stuck with me as their basketball coach since I didn’t know much about basketball besides how to high five. In regards to my family, the first time I was there—before I ever got a tour of the school—Lucy Nazro’s secretary, this really nice woman named Nan, took me and showed me the piano that’s named after my dad, and yeah, I teared up a little at that. It was real personal for me.
I loved Brokeback Mountain, the short story. I read it when it appeared in the New Yorker, and it really affected me like it did Kimberly Horne. I was shocked when I read it, and I thought it was beautifully done. And when I saw the movie, I wept like a pregnant woman. It was powerful stuff. I think Brokeback Mountain is fine, for me. I have no idea what it would be like to have kids, asking them to read it. A lot of the parents who reacted so strongly against the book had lower-school students and felt it was impossible to imagine handing Brokeback Mountain to them. (Obviously, the school didn’t; the book was given to seniors at the end of their school year.) But I think the deal was—and a lot of people said this—that those parents were having a hard time envisioning their second-grade children as eighteen-year-olds fixing to go to college. That was one of the things that people thought made it difficult for the critics to get their heads around sometimes.
texasmonthly.com: With the exposition at the end of the article of Kimberly Horne’s teaching style, and also some almost laughable quotes from Mary Ann Bowling, do you really think people aren’t going to walk away from this story seeing it as a victory for progressive beliefs over closed-minded fundamentalism?
JS: Well, see, I don’t know. If you read the story and you think the school did the right thing, you’ll probably think Mary Ann’s quotes are laughable and you’ll probably read it as, “The school has done the right thing, and that’s good.” I’m thinking that if you’re on the conservative side, if you’re critical of the school’s position on this, if you’re somebody who doesn’t think the kids ought to be reading that book, I think that you’re going to say, “Mary Ann’s right, and her concerns are right, and those quotes are exactly what I’m feeling.” I hope that’s the way people will react. I hope it’s presented that neutrally. But I don’t know.
When I got asked to do the story, I didn’t want to write about the pissing match that was going on. The interesting thing to me seemed to be how Kimberly taught the book. I really wanted to go to her classroom and watch her teach the kids. I had an idea that I thought was really cool but knew was never going to happen: Get the McNairs and the Bowlings and some of these other parents who are so unhappy with this book being in the school, put them in the classroom, and have Kimberly teach the book to them the way she teaches it to the kids. It would have been a nice scene in the story. It wasn’t going to happen. But I did want to show her teaching the book. When she started to open up, she quoted from the book sometimes without even looking at it. This seemed like a special moment to me, and it seemed like the kind of thing that would really affect me if I were one of her students. But not everybody’s going to have that same reaction.
texasmonthly.com: Kimberly Horne said her goal is to prepare students “for difficult conversations and situations involving people that are very different from them,” which is kind of ironic considering that by the end of this, Kate McNair was passing out photocopies of Brokeback Mountain and some kids were making bumper stickers pledging their allegiance to Ms. Horne. Do you think that she has ultimately failed in her goal by starting this fight?
JS: It brings up something that a lot of the critical parents said—that the school is too liberal and that it’s not tolerant of conservative kids.
texasmonthly.com: I can imagine a lot of readers saying this is the classic battle between progressives and fundamentalists, and asking what’s new about this story. There are lots of people like Mary Ann Bowling, and there are lots of people who would disagree with her out in the world. Is it important to tell about this battle because it’s on such an elite stage?
JS: Yeah, there’s a handful of things that make it interesting. If you’re at a public school, there’s always going to be a grass-is-greener thing when you look at the private school. What’s not in the story for instance—I hated that this kind of stuff got cut out—the upper school art class this summer took a field trip to France to paint in Monet’s gardens. The fact that it’s Brokeback Mountain is interesting now in a way that it wouldn’t have been a year ago because, as Kimberly pointed out, before the movie came out, it was supposed to be a small movie. Nobody thought it was gonna be that big of a deal. Movies with gay relationships at the center tend to be small films, and they certainly don’t become part of popular culture the way this one did. So that made it interesting too. Those are the two big reasons—the elite part makes it interesting to some folks and Brokeback Mountain is kind of interesting to some folks.
texasmonthly.com: How would it be different at a public school?
JS: I don’t imagine that the book would have ever been brought up at a public school. I’m not sure, though. I don’t remember seeing any clips showing that Brokeback Mountain had been taught at a public school. I don’t know.
texasmonthly.com: Is it the church component that separates this from public schools?
JS: For the parents. It’s weird because there is a part of you that wants to answer the previous question by saying, well it’s a public school, so there’s not a religious element and so it’s different, right? Sin doesn’t presumably come up as often in public schools, at least to the extent that it did in this story with these people. But that’s the thing, it’s the Episcopal Church, and it has had a very public fight about what to do about homosexuals for twenty years or so. St. Andrew’s is a good enough school with a good enough reputation that everyone wants their kids there. And when the upper school starts and more people are coming to the school, a lot of them are coming that aren’t Episcopalians. Within the Episcopal Church you have some people that say that Brokeback Mountain should not be taught, but a lot of who will say it should be. But then you’re bringing in people from completely different faiths, different churches who are like, “What are you talking about? You can’t present homosexuality as anything normal to my kids. Are you nuts?” And it’s completely opposed to what they think. It’s almost like church is important to every single person involved in this, but in a different way for each person.