The Day They Came For Ms. Magazine at Ygnacio Valley High School
My news feed keeps suggesting stories to me about banned books. This makes sense: I’m a writer. It worries me when books are removed from libraries and librarians are labeled “groomers” by “concerned” parents. I worked for a library system for ten years, and librarians are overworked, underpaid, tired, helpful, and kind, but certainly not groomers. But the “concerned” parents spread the love to teachers, saying they’re trying to “recruit’ their children and telling them that slavery, and segregation, is a bad, bad thing. Part of me wants to stay in cheerful denial about what’s happening. I live in a blue state. This doesn’t affect me. But I remember Ms. Jane Juska, and I realize I can’t give up caring.
For two years, I had Ms. Juska as a Creative Writing Teacher at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, California. Our desks were shaped like a horseshoe so we could all see each other. She’d take a desk and sit in the middle of the room, so she could see all of us. Every Monday, we would talk about our weekends, or if it was after a school break, what we did during the break. One Monday in the fall of 1990, she sat down and held up a piece of paper. “Well, I got an essay rejected by Ms. Magazine this weekend.” This was back when writers would get their rejections in a self-addressed stamped envelope, light as a father but heavy to look at.
I raised my hand. “I thought they went out of business,” I asked.
“They’re back, but they don’t take advertising,” she explained. She looked at all of us. We were all born in the seventies, raised on a diet of Free to Be You and Me and Schoolhouse Rock. She then realized how our school was part of a free speech debate.
She then asked, “Wait a sec. You all haven’t heard about how Ms. Magazine was removed from YV?”
We didn’t. She proceeded to tell us this story:
In the mid to late seventies, Jane Juska had a chance to teach Women in Literature at YV. It was a golden time in California education. There was enough money for classes like American Literature, Human Relations, and Women’s Literature. She assigned Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Kate Chopin for reading. She also had students read Ladies Home Journal to have them notice how women were still being shown how to make perfect casseroles and lose ten pounds. She also assigned Ms. Magazine to contrast Ladies Home Journal. Some of Ms.’s stories in the late 70s early 80s they might’ve looked at were how removing sugar from your diet can be good for you, sex slavery in America, and an essay by Germaine Greer on lost art done by women artists. There were also ads for cigarettes, beer, and makeup that looked out of place with the content.
One night, a student took Ms. home with her to read. Her mother found it and started looking. She was shocked when she saw the word “fuck” and advertisements for sex toys. The mother marched into the principal’s office and demanded the magazine be removed. Principal Ernest Wutzke, known to students as “Smiling Ern” for his cheerful demeanor, was shocked and ordered the school librarian to remove Ms. magazine.
I was surprised to hear that; Principal Wutzke had a reputation for trusting teachers to do their own thing. One teacher in the early 70s came out to his class, thinking he would get fired by Wutzke. The teacher kept his job. But in 1980, the Moral Majority was making their presence known. They were done with loosey-goosey flower child teaching. Let’s get back to the basics, dagnabit. The basics, I bet, didn’t include Ms. Magazine. The concerned parents not only wanted Ms. removed from the YV library, but they also wanted Ms. removed district-wide. They also wanted to change the district’s name from Mt. Diablo Unified to Valley of the Kings. Why? Diablo was the devil.
A compromise was reached: the magazine would be held, and the magazine would stay in the library at the circulation desk. But this was not good enough for the parents’ group. A special school board hearing was held. Ms. Juska went, along with four hundred people. One parent after another spoke against the magazine. As Ms. Juska would later write, “…people went to the microphone and spoke ardently against children being exposed to the filth wrought by that dreadful woman, Gloria Steinem.” The school board voted to remove Ms. When the meeting ended, Ms. Juska heard one of the members say, “We’re going to get the pants sued off us.” Oh, yeah.
Ms. Juska sued, along with the chairman of the social studies department, Donald Gallup, to bring back Ms. They were joined in the lawsuit by two parents and two students. Helping them was the ACLU. After several months, they won. Ms. stayed in all the district-wide libraries.
A party was thrown in their honor. Coming from New York to Concord was that dreadful woman, Gloria Steinem. When Steinem met Ms. Juska, Steinem said Mrs. Juska showed heroic behavior. Ms. Juska scoffed; she just did what was right. She had her union behind her; she didn’t have to worry about losing her job or fear any other consequences. Steinem kept to her original position, saying Ms. Juska “was like Rosa Parks.” Wow!
I think of that story Ms. Juska told us that Monday often. I miss her and her calm, sensible voice. In 2003, she published her first book called A Round Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. It was about an ad she placed saying she wanted to meet a man she really liked and have sex with him. If they wanted to talk first, they could chat about Trollope. On my 31st birthday, I heard her read at Orinda Books. When she saw me, she grinned. “There she is; there’s that famous writer girl.” I had been publishing essays and short stories regularly online by then. The audience was made up of former students like me. Many of them became teachers and writers.
Ms. Juska died in October 2017. I will always miss her. I wish she were here now to say something about the banning books business. She would’ve found it amusing. I could see her rolling her eyes if anyone tried to call her a “groomer.” “So that’s what I was doing for thirty years,” she would say, “I was grooming.”
She was grooming. Grooming students to love writing and books.
And to never give up what you believe in.
I’m glad I was part of her grooming.