There’s the ironic expression, “Break a leg!” offered as good-luck encouragement to a thespian before a theatrical performance, but the phrase may have had a double-entendre effect this past week when the Hillsboro High School production of “She Kills Monsters” was scrapped. Some might argue that several legs were broken.
Full disclosure. I have not read the script, nor do I want to take exception to the decision on this matter. As Congressman Tip O’Neill once famously said, “All politics is local.” However, it might be good politics to have a review board for scripts of future plays to avoid the disappointment these students felt, and to avoid the awkward circumstance this created for the school board and its highly capable superintendent.
Are there any gay or lesbian students at the high school? I’d be very surprised if there were none, but again, locally-elected people of the Hillsboro community made the decision to withdraw the play. Last night I had a similar moment when I embarked on a movie series on Prime Video. I found the movie to be distasteful on several accounts, so I switched to another movie.
I do have concerns though about confrontations facing many school boards across the country. I get that it’s part and parcel of the infamous “culture wars” we are unfortunately experiencing, but the corrosive consequences have the potential to further divide our nation at a time when we desperately need unity to be fully engaged in a super-competitive world.
Being a conscientious and appreciated school board member nowadays may warrant combat pay. One of the givens in my lifetime has been the notion that there’s an historical legacy of common, recognizable human values attributed to this nation of ours. Differences at the margins strengthen the diverse fabric of our nation, as long as the differences don’t cut so deep that they threaten the health and well-being of our country.
My father, who in the course of his career was executive vice president of college boards and aided Sargent Shriver in establishing the Peace Corps, served several years after retirement on a school board in Connecticut because he believed in community service and what local public education means in making a community whole. Abuse is not what these dedicated people deserve for their service.
At school board meetings today, some parents are demanding that the Holocaust be erased from history curriculums, that the prevalence of slavery in America’s history be eliminated from curriculums because slavery is part of the past and we must only look forward, that books like “The Catcher in the Rye” (Salinger), “The Grapes of Wrath” (Steinbeck), “Beloved” (Morrison), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (Lee), “Animal Farm” (Orwell), “Gone with the Wind” (Mitchell), or “Lord of the Rings” (Tolkien) be removed in schools and libraries. Beyond these, the set of contentious issues is long: sex education; vaccine mandates (not polio, measles, tetanus, chickenpox, but Covid-19); mask mandates; gender issues; and protestations over so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion themes in schools.
What are school boards to do when civil discourse becomes uncivil? News stories emerge almost every night reporting on confrontations that are becoming increasingly hostile, with threats of violence.
To be clear, I believe Hillsboro to be a more civil and well-intentioned community. But culture wars as they relate to our nation’s school boards is absolutely a slippery and contentious slope, and the rise of hostile school board meetings isn’t making it easy for civic-minded people serving on these boards to make a well-intentioned difference in their communities.
Hamlet famously said in the eponymous Shakespearean play, “The play is the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Maybe instead of the “king,” he meant the “community.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.