by BILL HILL
Bill Nevins, a New Mexico high school teacher and personal friend, was fired last year and classes in poetry and the poetry club at Rio Rancho High School were permanently terminated. It had nothing to do with obscenity, but it had everything to do with extremist politics.
The “Slam Team” was a group of teenage poets who asked Nevins to serve as faculty adviser to their club. The teens, mostly shy youngsters, were taught to read their poetry aloud and before audiences. Rio Rancho High School gave the Slam Team access to the school’s closed-circuit television once a week and the poets thrived.
In March 2003, a teenage girl named Courtney presented one of her poems before an audience at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Albuquerque, then read the poem live on the school’s closed-circuit television channel.
A school military liaison and the high school principal accused the girl of being “un-American” because she criticized the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s failure to give substance to its “No child left behind” education policy.
The girl’s mother, also a teacher, was ordered by the principal to destroy the child’s poetry. The mother refused and may lose her job.
Bill Nevins was suspended for not censoring the poetry of his students. Remember, there is no obscenity to be found in any of the poetry. He was later fired by the principal.
After firing Nevins and terminating the teaching and reading of poetry in the school, the principal and the military liaison read a poem of their own as they raised the flag outside the school. When the principal had the flag at full staff, he applauded the action he’d taken in concert with the military liaison.
Then to all students and faculty who did not share his political opinions, the principal shouted: “Shut your faces.” What a wonderful lesson he gave those 3,000 students at the largest public high school in New Mexico. In his mind, only certain opinions are to be allowed.
But more was to come. Posters done by art students were ordered torn down, even though none was termed obscene. Some were satirical, implicating a national policy that had led us into war. Art teachers who refused to rip down the posters on display in their classrooms were not given contracts to return to the school in this current school year.
The message is plain. Critical thinking, questioning of public policies and freedom of speech are not to be allowed to anyone who does not share the thinking of the school principal.
The teachers union has been joined in a legal action against the school by the National Writers Union, headquartered in New York City. NWU’s at-large representative Samantha Clark lives and works in Albuquerque.
The American Civil Liberties Union has become the legal arm of the lawsuit pending in federal court.
Meanwhile, Nevins applied for a teaching post in another school and was offered the job but he can’t go to work until Rio Rancho’s principal sends the new school Nevins’ credentials. The principal has refused to do so, and that adds yet another issue to the lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date.
While students are denied poetry readings, poetry clubs and classes in poetry, Nevins works elsewhere and writes his own poetry.
Writers and editors who have spent years translating essays, films, poems, scientific articles and books by Iranian, North Korean and Sudanese authors have been warned not to do so by the U.S. Treasury Department under penalty of fine and imprisonment. Publishers and film producers are not allowed to edit works authored by writers in those nations. The Bush administration contends doing so has the effect of trading with the enemy, despite a 1988 law that exempts published materials from sanction under trade rules.
Robert Bovenschulte, president of the American Chemical Society, is challenging the rule interpretation by violating it to edit into English several scientific papers from Iran.
Are book burnings next?
Hill is a retired News-Journal reporter. Thanks to Peter Tocci for forwarding this op-ed piece.