Chattanooga-area librarian continues to ‘push back’ after cancellation of inclusive Mother’s Day lesson

Staff photo by Emily Crisman / Alpine Crest Elementary librarian Caroline Mickey poses for a portrait in Chattanooga Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
Staff photo by Emily Crisman / Alpine Crest Elementary librarian Caroline Mickey poses for a portrait in Chattanooga Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Alpine Crest Elementary librarian Caroline Mickey chose to plan a lesson around Mother's Day because she thought it would be an easy way to fill 50 minutes with her students in kindergarten through second grade.

Mickey chose books with nontraditional family structures to be inclusive of children without mothers in their lives, she said.

But the local chapter of the organization Moms for Liberty, which has been opposing literature in schools across the nation that features racial themes and gender non-conforming characters, didn't like her choice of books.

The two stories featured males in motherly roles. The Moms for Liberty chapter complained to administrators for the Hamilton County school district, and the lesson was canceled.

Initially, Mickey was worried about her job. But then she saw all the support she was getting from the community, she said in an interview.

Four people spoke in support of Mickey and her lesson at a school board meeting following the lesson's cancellation. Three of those people were parents of students at Alpine Crest.

About 1,500 people signed a petition to have the lesson reinstated. The letter was presented to the school board, but the board took no action.

One of the books Mickey chose for the lesson, "Stella Brings the Family," is about a girl with two fathers. The other, "Mother Bruce," is about a male bear who a group of goslings believe to be their mother.

Alpine Crest's principal approved the lesson, and the school sent a letter home with students that gave parents the option to have their child receive an alternate lesson.

Mickey sent the note home because she is aware of what's been going on with libraries locally and nationally and because mothers are a touchy subject for many young children -- particularly the kindergartners who did not go to preschool because of the pandemic, she said.

"We were just trying to be self-aware and proactive," she said.

Last year, the Hamilton County school board formed a committee to "review reading material content concerns and explore options available to address those concerns," according to a memorandum to the panel from former Board Chairman Tucker McClendon.

Such "reading material content concerns" nearly doubled across the nation in 2022.

In 2022, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources, compared with 729 book challenges reported in 2021. The majority of challenged books were written by or about members of the LGBTQ community or people of color, according to the library association's website.

"A lot of it is because of stuff like this," Mickey said, comparing the book challenges nationwide to complaints about the books she chose for her lesson. "People are saying they're just looking out for the kids, when really, they're just trying to erase the lives that people lead who are LGBTQ or a person of color."

But Mickey wasn't willing to bow to the criticism.

"The risk is high, the reward is great," she said of standing up for her decision to include nontraditional family structures in the lesson. "I feel secure in my job because I don't feel like I could be secure in my humanity if I didn't stand up for it because I was worried about a job. I've got two kids of my own, and I don't know how I'd be able to look at them in the face if I told them I just put my head down when the bullies came for me."

She also feels secure in her job because she has tenure, so she can't be fired without due process. And she said she knows backing down would not result in a positive outcome for her or for other librarians and educators who may not feel so secure.

"When you let the bully win, they just keep going, they're not satisfied," Mickey said. "They're like, 'OK, we got away with this. What's the next one? What's the next thing we can get done away with? What's the next thing we can erase? What's the next thing we can cancel?' They keep wanting to push the line further and further. I don't know if they necessarily thought that I would push back."

Tonya Dodd, president of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, did not respond Friday to a text requesting comment on Mickey's feeling that she was bullied.

"I'm thankful for the citizens, the parents, elected officials who spoke up on this situation and we could celebrate a victory from keeping young children from confusion when unnecessary," Dodd said in a statement to a reporter by text on May 9.

Mickey said she's pushing back by continuing to talk about it and by sharing the messages of support and hate she's received from people all over the nation since the lesson's cancellation received national attention.

The story was featured on the ABC talk show "The View," CNN, National Public Radio and The Washington Post.

"(I) just keep talking, just keep encouraging people, just keep buying the books that show people the way the world is that aren't inflammatory," she said.

In "Stella Brings the Family," Stella is anxious because she doesn't have a mother to bring to a Mother's Day celebration. She brings all the people in her life who fill a motherly role – her two fathers, her aunt and uncle and her grandmother – to the celebration, and there are other students who bring their mothers, Mickey said.

The book shows that gay people exist and that family structures with two fathers exist, she said.

"It's not saying that your family structure is wrong or that your family structure is bad or that your family structure is inferior or less than, because that's what some people, I think, seem to think about when we're acknowledging all of these other family structures or people, that we're saying that you're less than," she said. "That's not it; we're lifting everybody up to the same level so that we can celebrate. It's not pie. Giving somebody the equality that they deserve as a human being doesn't give you less equality, but when you've always had privilege, equality feels like oppression."

It did not occur to Mickey that some people might see "Mother Bruce," which features a male bear in a motherly role, as pushing a transgender agenda, she said.

"Had I known that was the problem with Mother Bruce, I would have switched it with something else," she said. "If one of the books had had a more traditional female in that space, then I definitely got the impression that the lesson would have gone forward."

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson did not respond to emailed questions about the canceled lesson.

School system spokesman Steve Doremus emailed a statement.

"As an administration, we chose to put a hold on the planned lesson at Alpine Crest Elementary School as we continue to consider the best ways to serve our students and families," the statement said. "We will continue to review district policy and adjust district procedures. The issue in question here is not the content selected, but the range of content available in the lesson that would have been inclusive to all family models."

Doremus did not respond to an email Thursday requesting clarification on which policies and procedures are being reviewed and whether there will be changes to those policies and procedures.

The books Mickey planned to read for the Mother's Day lesson are still in the school library. She didn't do a Mother's Day lesson this year – she read a book about flowers, and the children made origami flowers – but she may plan one in the future.

"I'm just going to keep doing my job," Mickey said. "That's all I can do."


MOMS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE EVENT

Moms for Social Justice, a local parent group focused on equity, is holding a story hour featuring books celebrating all types of family models at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Christian Church. "Stella Brings the Family" by Miriam B. Schiffer and "Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins, the two books chosen by Alpine Crest Elementary librarian Caroline Mickey for her inclusive Mother's Day lesson, are among the books to be read at the event. First Christian Church is at 650 McCallie Ave.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.