When teacher-librarian Lenora Poulin gave her presentation to the school board two weeks ago, she walked away feeling confident, happy and proud to be in charge of Hope secondary’s library.
But when she heard what was said about her after leaving that meeting, those strong feelings of pride turned to anger. Poulin found out that later in the regular board meeting, Trustee Tom Hendrickson suggested she is a “book burner” for taking out certain titles, most notably older material that refers to First Nation people as savages and AIDS as a “gay people’s problem.”
Hendrickson did not raise any questions with Poulin while she was in attendance, but board meetings are audio recorded and put online for public consumption. In the May 15 meeting, Hendrickson is heard saying he has a problem with people who “burn books” and made a motion to the board to consider having someone from senior staff look at the material Poulin removed from the collection.
That comment, and others, prompted Poulin to return to the school board and officially address Hendrickson’s comments. She did so at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Poulin took the floor for about a half hour, reading a letter outlining her extensive education background and training and her 20 year history as an educator in the Fraser Cascade School District. She also expressed her shock at being questioned on her process of weeding HSS’s library collection.
“I literally yelled out (while listening to the audio) ‘I am not a book burner,’” she told the board.
She said the comments Hendrickson made likened her to a Nazi and were “offensive, defamatory and quite frankly, disgusted” her. She said the library collection had not been weeded in over 10 years, and that the process is always a difficult one. About 3,000 books were recently removed from the collection. Some were beyond repair. Others contained obsolete technological information. Many were duplicates.
She attempted to sell some of the books, with little success. She tried giving them away to the students. A few were taken, but the rest were left for removal. She and other staff tore the books from their bindings, removed identifying marks, and recycled the salvageable paper. There are many benefits to weeding a collection, she added, including making the library more appealing and easier to access for students, and the wider community that uses the HSS library.
Poulin also called Hendrickson homophobic, for comments on the audio recording she interpreted to relate to lesbian and gay material within the library.
In the recording, Hendrickson refers to “those” books and talks about the new discriminatory language policy in the school district. Poulin demanded an apology for his comments and accusations.
Hendrickson took equal time to respond to Poulin, saying: “If my remarks offended you, I publicly apologize for that. It was certainly not intentional.” He said his role on the school board is to question things, rather than be a “rubber stamp.” He explained that when he heard books were being removed from the library because of the potentially offensive or inaccurate content within them, that twigged a reaction in him. But he said his way with words is often very blunt.
“I’m not in any way suggesting you’re a book burning Hitler,” Hendrickson said. He said he doesn’t want to see society erase the past, or whitewash history. Rather, he’d like to see these old books set apart with a distinction: “Books including historical embarrassments” that could be used “as learning tools for years to come.” Books have been destroyed all through history, he said, from the Aztecs and churches, to Hitler and Stalin, to suit those in power at the time.
“All of us could take it upon ourselves to verse ourselves in our past history,” he added.
Hendrickson did not clearly respond to being called homophobic. He also stated that he has a right to his opinion, and that the board is there to disagree with him, and that open discussion is part of the decision making process for the board.
“We are not here to rubber stamp a thing,” he said, and since the board disagreed with him, his motion to have Poulin’s work double checked by senior staff was defeated at the May 15 meeting. “You can put whatever books you want in there, and I can disagree,” he said.