Florida: Where Learning Goes to Die

Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs for our series, ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at adove-viebahn@msmagazine.com. Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

At the corner of Lytle

 and South Dixie Freeway, a pale

 young woman, baby on one arm, crooks

 in the other, a placard that asks


—’Waiting for the End in New Smyrna Beach, Florida,’ by Maxine Kumin

I teach English in Florida, my home. I arrived as a toddler. My father was a rocket scientist with NASA; I was born in Alabama and raised on an island that lies like a string of pearls above the Cape.

My parents raised seven children in the local schools; my husband and our four sons were educated here. I’ve been a clerk, teacher and administrator in Volusia County Schools. Our grandson, who is 9, will no longer be educated here.

I love Volusia so much that, after earning a master of fine arts in poetry at the University of North Carolina, I returned to teach high school English instead of working in higher education. We wanted to raise our children here, and they, in turn, stayed to raise theirs. 

Last school year, one like no other, I kept a journal because the laws coming down from Tallahassee and the school board meetings I regularly attend had become frightening. I knew the effects in the schools would be equally scary. They were worse than I imagined.

I took pictures to add to the journal, cached documents to illuminate current laws and their implementation, and what literary selections are mandated to scaffold students to meet state standards. The journal became a book: a daily record of our broken educational system.

All the noise and coverage and screaming cover dirty dealings. Which, of course, is how fascism begins: paranoia, lies, cover-ups, and information control.

A whole chapter addresses my role in our district Book Review Committee; we looked at 19 challenged books. As a sixth-grade English teacher, I was assigned to review ttyl: (Talk to You Later-Internet Girls) by Lauren Myracle. Each book had a committee of 10—parents, teachers, staff and community members. In the paranoid climate, I was proud of the work we did in the process. We recommended keeping ttyl on the shelves. Only one book was removed from the 70-plus media centers in our district. 

The seriousness with which I took that process and the media coverage on book banning seems like extreme naiveté now. For years, I watched the extremist group Moms for Liberty (M4L) rise here and the simultaneous takeover of our large (over 60,000 students) district by M4L board members and administrators working hand-in-hand with powerful developers. With readings of out-of-context excerpts at board meetings designed to shock and gain attention through well-planned media rollouts and protests, the far right is obfuscating what is happening. Deliberately. All the noise and coverage and screaming cover dirty dealings.

Which, of course, is how fascism begins: paranoia, lies, cover-ups and information control. Thought control. Fear tactics. Strong-arming educators. Mob mentality.

A Moms For Liberty meeting in Vero Beach, Fla., on Oct. 16, 2022. (Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images)

What matters here is not teaching children to think. The district motto: “Volusia County Schools will ignite a passion for learning in all students to be productive citizens.”

From governor to developers to Moms for Liberty on the board to senior district administrators imported in the last three years, the focus is on obedient workers, not thinkers. 

Books are thrown out sans process.

One photograph I took for my journal was outside our media center. 

I showed that picture to a media specialist. She told me each specialist like her was visited by District staff and told to pull anything that might be “woke.” Some threw books out. None of this was put in an e-mail or memo.

Teachers complete an end-of-the-year checklist before getting final paychecks. We’re required to dispose of student workbooks in open-topped cardboard boxes. As I piled books in, I noticed beautiful, bound books in them. I asked the specialist if I could take books.

“Sure!” she replied.

Several times during post-planning, I filled bags, but I didn’t examine what I was taking, just plunked bags in my truck. This summer, I unpacked and arranged them at home on a table—90 books, perhaps a tenth of what sat in heat and rain outside the media center.

  • Seven copies of The Watsons Go To Birmingham
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Devil’s Arithmetic
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Come Juneteenth
  • How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found
  • Born Confused
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Number the Stars
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Mark Twain, Himself

As I unpacked the books and arranged them, I realized many were out-of-print historical texts it would be impossible to replace when the book-banning madness ends:

  • Swamp to Sugar Bowl: Pioneer Days in Belle Glade
  • Florida’s Past, Volume 2: People and Events that Shaped the State
  • Florida History
  • Florida’s First People

And finally, a history of our very own county, which included profiles of the schools my children and, grandchild and I attended by teachers we knew: Bicentennial Pictorial History of Volusia County—my Volusia County. My home.

Elizabeth Bishop’s state is full of long S-shaped birds where my grandson will no longer live, where he won’t learn. Where thousands upon thousands of students won’t learn. My grandson’s parents had the wisdom to move (they’re teachers, too) to a state where he could walk through a store without encountering citizens with legal assault weapons, and his mother can call students by their chosen pronouns. Where relatives of color can visit without worry about travel warnings.

While I wait for the end in New Smyrna Beach. 

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Kate Cumiskey teaches in Daytona Beach, Fla. She is the author of several books, including a social justice novel, Ana, published last year by Finishing Line Press.