NORMAN, Okla. — Summer Boismier was living her childhood dream. She grew up a bookworm, became a high school English teacher, and filled her classroom and home with her favorite literature.
She taught her students, “Stories are fundamental to human experience. We all have them.
Boismier is particularly fond of the fantasy genre, a passion born from childhood favorite “Harry Potter”. But even in a world of fantasy, she couldn’t have dreamed that one lesson from her English class would put her at the center of a vigorous statewide political campaign and turn her into a target for the candidates and voters on social networks.
Over the past two years, the nine-year teaching veteran has grown increasingly alarmed by growing efforts by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature to restrict access to books in public schools. . In her classroom, she covered shelves with red tape and labeled them “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She gave the students a QR code link to the Brooklyn Public Library, which provides access to a variety of banned books.
She hoped to spark a discussion about book restrictions imposed by lawmakers and a new law banning lessons on critical race theory and other concepts about race and gender. Instead, she was called into a meeting with school administrators after a parent complained.
A firestorm erupted when Boismier quit and a reporter from a local television station covered the story. The state’s Republican candidate for superintendent of public schools, Ryan Walters, wrote a letter to the State Board of Education asking for Boismier’s teaching license to be revoked.
“There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom,” Walters wrote in the letter he later tweeted and sent to reporters, even accusing Boismier of providing access to ” pornographic material”. The incident gained traction on social media and people claimed she was part of a wider movement of teachers indoctrinating students with liberal ideology.
Boismier, 34, and other teachers have found themselves at the center of a resurgence of conservative interest in public education as a political issue. The movement has gained momentum with parents opposing mask mandates and other COVID-19 measures. It has since expanded, and some supporters are focusing on issues they believe conflict with conservative values, such as teaching about social justice, gender, race and history.
For weeks, Boismier — a book-loving English teacher with no political aspirations — has been at the center of an ugly and impassioned statewide campaign. People on social media called for her to be prosecuted, thrown in jail or even lynched.
“It was a bit of a firehose of bigotry,” Boismier said.
Even after her resignation, the campaign against her continued and she left the house for a short time when someone emailed a threatening note containing her address. She called her mother in tears.
“It’s hard enough for yourself to read,” Boismier said. “It’s even harder, I think, to read that to your mother. I’m not going to lie. I was scared.”
As Oklahoma struggles to hire enough qualified teachers, those already in the jobs have increasingly found themselves the target of attack and conservative politicians. On the campaign stump and social media, Walters has relentlessly attacked public school teachers as liberal indoctrinators. Norman, one of Oklahoma’s most liberal cities, and public schools in Tulsa, one of its largest districts, have both come under fire from conservative politicians. Similar attacks on schools and libraries have also increased across the country.
“I’ve seen the propaganda that Democrats want in our schools. It’s sick,” Walters said in one of several online videos he posted during his campaign to lead the state’s public school system. “I’m here to fix our schools and teach leftists a lesson.”
Walters has also addressed her opposition to transgender students playing sports or using bathrooms that match their gender identity. He recently suggested at a GOP rally that all Oklahoma history teachers should take training in patriotic education at a private, conservative Christian college in Michigan.
But it’s not clear that Walters’ message, which helped him win the Republican primary, resonates in deep red Oklahoma. A Democrat has not been elected to a statewide position since 2006. Walters, a former teacher who was appointed education secretary by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, is in a tight race with the Democrat Jena Nelson, a veteran English teacher, and the state. Teacher of the year 2020.
“We need a state superintendent who believes in our public schools, nurtures our teachers, doesn’t threaten to fund schools or threaten teachers,” Nelson said during a recent televised debate.
Jamie Qualls, a public school special education teacher from Madill, a rural district in far southern Oklahoma, said she was a Republican who considered voting for Nelson because she didn’t like the rhetoric of Walters.
“If we could indoctrinate kids, we would ask them to bring a pencil to class,” Qualls said. “If we had the power to brainwash children, we would make them do their homework.”
For Boismier, his story has a happy ending. She found solace in the community that rallied around her amid the attacks – some even printed road signs, buttons and T-shirts with the QR code she shared with students . A yard sign is prominently displayed on the front lawn, visible from the football stadium.
Now she’s headed to New York for a job at the Brooklyn Public Library — her first move away from Oklahoma since a brief internship in Washington after college.
Despite the controversy and rollercoaster of emotions she’s been through over the past two months, she said she’d be ready to go through it all again – she’s proud to have stood up for her students and now has the opportunity to reach more young people.
“My teaching certificate may be about to drop,” she says. “But I would do it again without hesitation.
“My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.”
Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy