My husband and I both grew up in Norman, Okla. Until last year, July 2022 to be exact, we had been Texas residents for 17 years. What brought us back home to Norman was a traumatic event with the public school system we had been a part of for all those previous 17 years.
My husband was a public school teacher, and our children attended the schools in our district. The event came at us without warning, and it was strong enough to make us want to leave town. This is how serious things are getting for public school teachers and administrators, especially in Red states.
We would not have chosen Oklahoma as an alternative on our own, not as a better public school situation than Texas, to be sure, had it not been for the fact that Norman is our home, and our family is here. Our family helped us pick up the pieces last year.
Current situation in Norman
Norman is not known for being a conservative town, not like most of Oklahoma, at least. Being a university town and with its proximity to Oklahoma City, Norman has remained a relatively balanced city throughout the years — until COVID.
In the last mayoral election, Norman’s progressive mayor, Breea Clark, was ousted by Larry Heikkila, a conservative Constitutionalist. There was a conservative faction called “Unite Norman” hard at work to make this happen. They wanted to get Norman’s leadership changed at every level.
They got Clark unseated by targeting how she handled the pandemic and how she funded community programs by reallocating funds from the Norman Police Department. They believed she was “defunding” the police. I have talked to several long-time Norman residents who say they have noticed a notable change in Norman politics since the pandemic started.
These hard-right changes are having a deep impact on the public schools in Norman too, and the schools were needing help before it turned into this nightmare we have now. I have talked to several teachers with years of experience in Norman Public Schools who say being a teacher never has been harder than it is right now. It never has been easy, but right now there is little to no support. Just like in Texas, the disrespect teachers face is high and parents and politicians of a certain political persuasion are targeting “liberal” teachers.
It is time to start having a public conversation about how unsafe public schools are becoming because they are under siege from one segment of the public.
It is time for the Christian community that is aware of Christian nationalism to see what is happening to public school employees by those in power.
Seeing Christian nationalism for what it is
Last year, when my husband faced his own trauma, I had just finished seminary and wrote the final paper of my seminary career on Christian nationalism. So we know what to look for, and we know the threat of Christian nationalism when we see it and experience it. Last week, we were at an event where Christian nationalism could not be denied and the abuse from it was in plain sight.
On July 6, the Oklahoma state superintendent of schools, Ryan Walters, came to Norman, where he was hosted by the Cleveland County Republican Party. This was a last-minute meeting that caught most of us by surprise, but luckily my husband, now a Norman Public Schools teacher, and I were available to show up on such short notice and bear witness.
“The message he gave at our meeting was dripping with the language of Christian nationalism; I could hardly contain myself listening to it.”
Ryan Walters is a controversial political figure in Oklahoma for so many reasons. For now, I am going to focus on the Christian nationalism he is unapologetically trying to institute in all Oklahoma public schools. The message he gave at our meeting was dripping with the language of Christian nationalism; I could hardly contain myself listening to it.
The “family unit” is a big part of Christian nationalism. Everything is predicated upon a straight, white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied view of the family and male headship. Anything else is labeled “indoctrination.”
Thus, the most marginalized among us are being targeted through the public school systems under the guise of “family values.”
I can say without a doubt we need more pastors showing up for public schools right now to listen to and challenge what these leaders are saying. Too many of them have crossed over into territory that is not theirs, and it is dangerous. Ryan Walters was not elected to be the minister of public schools in Oklahoma. He also is supposed to be nonpartisan. But there seem to be no rules anymore.
A hostile environment
When we showed up at the meeting, hosted at the Norman Public Library (an irony with all the book banning Walters is doing), we were told in a threatening way what would get us thrown out of the meeting. The Cleveland County GOP chair, Gary Barksdale, operated more as a bouncer than as a gracious host to our community. His posture and rhetoric fueled hostility from the get-go.
“You would think public school teachers are the greatest threat Oklahoma has ever known.”
You would think public school teachers are the greatest threat Oklahoma has ever known based on how Barksdale and Walters both talked and acted toward them. I cannot imagine any other profession that would allow someone to come in and start treating their employees like this without any consequences.
Barksdale told Walters he had been dealing with “these people” for years. He also opened the meeting while he was still fuming mad with one of the most hostile prayers I have ever heard; I really was offended by that forced and harsh prayer, and I am a Christian!
The prayer was immediately followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. That move is Christian Nationalism 101. And during the meeting when a woman in the audience got so fed up with Walters’ lies that she no longer could stay silent, Barksdale screamed in a threatening way “MA’AM, MA’AM, MA’AM, PLEASE, SILENCE!”
What I love, though, is the response from other teachers in the crowd who said this is what their classrooms are like now. There is no respect, and the kids are listening and watching their parents and other screaming adults.
Walters clearly was reading from a script, not reading the room. The way he talked about education and the children had more capitalistic motives than engaging children and their love of learning. It was all about how to get them educated to prepare them to enter the workforce, not to help them become lifelong learners.
Preparing for the workforce is important, but that cannot be the only thing. A professor I know at the University of Arkansas has been contacted by employers who say the problem they’re having with new hires is not a lack of preparation for the work — the people are highly intelligent — but it is lack of people skills and an inability to work with people who see things differently. School is one of the optimal places to learn these skills. It is not indoctrination; it is a life skill.
Walters also talked about a teacher empowerment program he wants to implement with superintendents, but that was more to compensate teachers who are doing more than what their job already requires (and that is a lot) and giving signing bonuses to new teachers to get the best and brightest to Oklahoma and retain them.
“With the way teachers are treated in Oklahoma, bonuses are not going to be enough to bring in new talent.”
With the way teachers are treated in Oklahoma, bonuses are not going to be enough to bring in new talent. Creating a hospitable, generous and sustainable environment is what the time calls for now. These bonuses are just temporary solutions with no sustainability. Increasing salaries for everybody is a more long-term and sustainable idea if they really want to keep teachers here.
Schools also need to implement something to address the high rates of burnout teachers are feeling because their job is more than just teaching; they are dealing with humans who have a variety of life experiences and needs. Walters’ ideal family unit is not a reality, not even for kids who have the setup he thinks is as God designed it. He will not accept that there there is inequality for any reason.
One thing my husband and I did to prepare for the meeting was bring props. Jake wore his Oklahoma teachers’ union shirt. A few days before Teacher Appreciation Week in May, Walters said this about teachers’ unions to lawmakers: “The teachers’ union, I don’t negotiate with the teachers’ union. They’re a terrorist organization. They just continue to spread misinformation across the state and lie about our administration. My goal is to provide transparency and truth.”
Despite pushback, even from Republicans, he will not retract that statement. And in this meeting, he went after national teachers’ unions in a major way. He said teachers’ unions are dead set on indoctrinating and controlling kids. When he discussed how poorly Oklahoma has been scoring in both math and reading nationally for the past 10 years, (48th and 49th respectively), he said 10 years ago we were not teaching well and now we are continuing not to teach well, and we are adding indoctrination to the mix.
And the major player he sees driving the indoctrination? The National Teachers’ Union.
He also said teachers’ unions are breaking down the family unit: “They want to break down the family by having discussions with your kids about being transgender in the earliest of grades. These are inappropriate conversations in our schools.”
Then he went after the Biden administration for partnering with these teachers’ unions to shut down schools across the country during COVID and for “pushing the most radical elements our school systems have ever seen.”
These “radical elements” are as follows: Critical Race Theory, diversity and equity inclusion, and radical gender theory. This is where people in the audience began to lose their cool and yell at him. And his response was what a typical gaslighter does: “Folks, let me tell you, you are going to have a lot of people that are going to say that it is not happening. You are going to have a lot of people deny the truth, despite how much you see it. And here is the reality, folks, they think that you’re dumb.”
Critical Race Theory was the first thing brought up when the Q&A began and is the issue that has brought national attention to our meeting. A person in the audience began grilling Walters on why teaching about the Tulsa Race Massacre does not fall under his ban on teaching Critical Race Theory. Walters fumbled around at an answer and was not answering the question that was asked of him, so the person kept asking the question. He eventually got Walters to say the difference is the Tulsa Race Massacre was not caused by the color of anyone’s skin.
Here is what he said, verbatim:
“I would never tell a kid that because of your race, because of the color of your skin, or your gender or anything like that, you are less of a person or are inherently racist. That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. Oh, you can. Absolutely, historically, you should. ‘This was right. This was wrong. They did this for this reason.’ But to say it was inherent in that because of their skin is where I say that is Critical Race Theory. You’re saying that race defines a person. I reject that, so I say you be judgmental of the issue, of the action, of the content of the character of the individual, absolutely. But let’s not tie it to the skin color and say the skin color determined it.”
I chimed in after he made the biggest fool of himself with a copy of the Critical Race Theory textbook I own. I brought the textbook as a prop to show how deeply complicated Critical Rae Theory is. It is a thick academic book created for an upper-level course in law school.
He laughed at me when I pulled out the book. I told him we are talking about something none of us understand. We need to know what we are talking about to discuss it responsibly. We have banned something our leadership knows nothing about.
Walters’ response shows how foolish he is about this subject, but teachers can get fired or reprimanded for carrying it out even though there are not clear guidelines on what it is! We have banned something we do not know enough about to ban.
“I propose right now we ban Ryan Walters from talking about Critical Race Theory until he knows what it is and how to apply it.”
I did not say this in the meeting, but I propose right now we ban Ryan Walters from talking about Critical Race Theory until he knows what it is and how to apply it. His response to everything that makes him uncomfortable is to ban it: books, talking about being transgender or gender queer, sex, Critical Race Theory. There is a pattern. This is not what a good leader does.
I want all kids to belong
I also talked about Christian nationalism briefly with the superintendent. I told him I recently graduated from seminary and am a minister with real concerns about forcing prayer in school on kids who are not Christian (not to mention it is not Constitutional — but there are no rules anymore).
I want all kids to show up and feel like they belong just as they are, with no forced prayer. I did not get a chance to talk about the Ten Commandments Walters is currently trying to get passed to be displayed in our public schools. There are just too many things he is trying to do.
He nodded his head in agreement about my concerns but never responded to them, but in fairness, that might be because I went on to another subject that made him react more: George Soros. Toward the end of his talk, Walters told us as we can see the fight before us is largely due to the organized efforts of groups that are funded by the likes of George Soros who, he believes, is undermining our state’s values and our schools.
I told him that rhetoric fuels antisemitism and is dangerous. He did not like my comment and laughed at me again. However, he backed away and also backed down on his comments about Soros.
People in the crowd reminded him of how he, too, is funded — it is religiously based. Moms for Liberty is one example. It was infuriating.
Indoctrination is a hot topic with Ryan Walters. He believes we must get rid of all the material that is “indoctrination” and get real “content-rich educational books.” Books that will not disrupt the kids’ world as they know it.
His “indoctrination” definition is similar to how he defines Critical Race Theory — it means anything he does not like. “Indoctrination” has a lot to do with targeting the LGBTQ community. Here are a couple of quotes to support this statement:
“We will fight back against this radical Biden administration every time they try to step into the state of Oklahoma and dictate things that go against our values. Folks, we’re not going to have a boy playing girls’ sports. That is not happening here.”
Then he went after the National Teachers’ Union again, saying they have told every teacher to put on their summer reading list Gender Queer and Flamer. He says that will not happen in the state of Oklahoma.
“An audience member spoke up and told him no one is talking about sex more than he is!”
He believes these books are pornography. He also does not think anyone, except parents, should talk to kids about sex. An audience member spoke up and told him no one is talking about sex more than he is!
Walters also has pushed the rhetoric that teachers are “groomers” because of indoctrination (this is about the books), just like Trump and celebrities like Kirk Cameron have done. This has had a major impact on teachers. This is once again allowing a term, a very serious one at that, to mean whatever they need it to mean, and now teachers can be accused of it for almost any reason.
A woman in the audience grilled him for having two sets of standards on two real-life cases currently in the news in Oklahoma.
There is a coach in Ringling, Okla. — Philip Koons — who has been accused of bullying kids for years. Most recently, he had the boys doing naked burpees on the football field and now some of them are suffering injuries to their genitals due to turf burn. Walters has been silent about this teacher, and this teacher is under federal investigation now — still with access to kids.
On the other hand, Summer Boismier, a teacher at Norman High, in response to HB1775, a law restricting what a state can say about race and gender, reportedly put a paper over her bookshelves with the message: “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.”
A parent complained about Boismier’s political rhetoric in the classroom, and she resigned immediately because she could not promise the district she would not make another political statement. She said teachers cannot do their jobs if they cannot talk about race and gender.
The state found no wrongdoing on her part — nor was she forced to leave, but Walters and several parents who think some of these books are pornographic because they talk about things they are uncomfortable with, believe her teaching license needs to be pulled and she should have no access to children.
Looking at these two cases side-by-side should make us all pause. Books are what they are calling “indoctrination,” “pornography” and harming children. We are allowing terms to go undefined and mean something they do not mean, and it is causing confusion and chaos. And the people suffering the most have done nothing wrong.
Last week’s meeting in Norman could not have been more partisan or more disrespectful of the people the superintendent is charged to care for and serve as their leader. But the thing is, he really does believe he is delivering absolute truth. That is what is so scary about the whole thing.
This is why we need pastors to show up and get involved and help teachers. Teachers cannot fight this battle on their own. The theology that is driving Walters is not something they are trained for, that is our realm.
Lindsay Bruehl is a 2022 graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a master of divinity degree. She is the founding Baptist House of Studies assistant at Perkins. She also holds a finance degree from Oklahoma State University and works as a bookkeeper for a nonprofit and serves on the board of Rewilding Ministry. She and her family live in Norman, Okla.
Is it now illegal to mention the Tulsa Race Massacre in the classrooms of Oklahoma? | Opinion by Alan Bean