Mekenna Bills

Dear Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Board Members,

My name is Mekenna Bills. I am sixteen years old, born and raised here in Palmer, Alaska. I am a senior dual-enrolled at Colony High School and Mat-Su Central School. Here in just a few short weeks, I will be graduating a year early. I have been in the MSBSD school system ever since kindergarten. In the fall, I will be attending the University of California at Davis, which is recognized as one of our nation’s top schools and is well-known as a “public ivy”, as well as being a part of the internationally-acclaimed University of California system. I will be studying biochemistry and molecular biology. After I receive my bachelor’s degree, I will attend medical school, and eventually come back to Alaska to practice. I have above a 4.0 GPA, an amazing ACT score, and above all, I excel in English Language Arts. I don’t list these things to brag, but to bring to your attention that I am a well-versed student.

I have taken English 1 (eighth grade), Honors English 2 (freshman year), AP English Language and Composition (sophomore year, online, AP Exam score of 4), and AP English Literature and Composition (senior year, online, one semester).

When I heard about the book ban, I was extremely disappointed. I have never had much faith in the school board, but this sealed the deal for me. Lucky for me, I will not be a part of this school district in a few weeks, however, there are countless students that will come after me, and I am writing this email for them. First, I would like to start off by saying that you are making a huge mistake. I hope that after you read this email, you will realize this.

The first book I would like to discuss is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book, by Maya Angelou, is an autobiography of her early life in America, describing her growing up and facing discrimination and racism. Maya Angelou was a world-renowned poet, author, and civil rights activist. I am disgusted that you would ban this book because of its “anti-white” messages. I cannot even begin to describe the racism and sexism present in your sentiments. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is another book that features the very real issue of discrimination and racism. Both Catch-22 and The Things They Carried are books about war, very real wars, that happened in history. The Things They Carried was written by a Vietnam War veteran about his experiences in Vietnam. By banning this book, it seems, to me, that you are ignoring veterans and their stories. The final book, and perhaps the most surprising on the list, was The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is well-known as classic American literature, and reading it is almost a rite of passage. It is also one of my favorite books. Teachers use it in their curriculum to teach students literary symbolism and themes, as it has some of the most revered symbolism in any novel. My question to you is; why would you hide these books? The topics in some of these books may seem taboo, but they are also very real. The most surprising thing to me is that you would try to cut out books that deal with the ever-present issue of racism. In a society such as ours today, when discrimination is present now more than ever, why would you hide books that students may feel a connection to? Dealing with racism is enough of an issue for students, but if they find a book where the main character is dealing with similar things as what they deal with, why would it be hidden from them? The wars that occur in Catch-22 and The Things They Carried are also very real as well. History happened, and we cannot ignore it. America (and the world) have problems such as racism and wars. We cannot pretend that our society and history is perfect. It isn’t.

After doing some research on the MSBSD website, it has come to my attention that the vision of the school district is “MSBSD will be a model of excellence in teaching, learning, and engaging of all students.” This is not excellence. This is ignorance. The mission is listed as “MSBSD prepares all students for success.” This is not preparing your students for success. I can tell you that much. On the SAT, ACT, and even ELA AP Exams, students are expected to have read these books, or at least know about them and their messages. Colleges expect students to have read these books and understand their themes, symbols, and messages. Two of MSBSD’s guiding principles are accountability and integrity. This is not being accountable or having integrity. Being accountable means being responsible and justifying your actions. Having integrity means being honest and having strong morals. If you believe banning books that are deemed taboo is having strong moral principles and integrity, then you are very wrong.

Mr. Bergey, after doing some research, it has come to my attention that not only are you the president of the school board, but your mother was a teacher, so I believed that you would understand the issue with banning books. As a member of the Army, I also believed that you would understand the importance of books written by veterans about their experiences, which is what The Things They Carried is. In an article from The Frontiersman in 2018, it was stated that “Bergey sees the test scores in the valley as too low,” and that “These are skills that are needed for them to become employable and they’re base skills and we’re doing our children an injustice.” I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree. The test scores are way too low, and we are not giving kids the tools they need for success. For kids to function, and function well in society, they need to understand that things aren’t perfect. If we pretend that our society and history doesn’t have issues, we are lying. We cannot pretend that everything is perfect, because not only will life hit these kids with a brick, but they won’t have the motivation to improve our world. We must show students that there are things wrong, books were written about them, and that they have the ability to grow up and change that.

If any of you are familiar at all with the novel Fahrenheit 451, you will see what irony this all is. If you are not familiar, I suggest you take the time to read the book, or at the very least, look up the synopsis and themes. The irony would almost be funny, if it weren’t so sad.

I’m going to briefly touch on the fact that I am very disappointed that the school board thought banning books was more important than making the class of 2020 feel special. Instead of banning books, MSBSD should be helping high schools prepare for graduation and making the class of 2020 feel important. It is heartbreaking that I will not have the opportunity to walk across the stage and receive my diploma. The university I will be attending is having a virtual commencement, and then inviting all of the graduates back once quarantine is lifted to do a real commencement. I believe that is an amazing idea, and shows that the university actually cares about their students and all of the hard work they have put in.

To end, I would like to thank you for hearing me out and listening. I hope something in this email has resonated with you and you have realized what damage your decision will do. I would be doing a disservice to all future students, as well as my ELA teachers if I did not write this email (huge thank you to Mrs. Stacy Roberts, Mrs. Kelly Thaler, and Mr. Gary Howell for giving me the tools to succeed). If you have gotten this far, thank you again for listening, and I really hope that this email has not fallen upon deaf ears. I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy, and I wish you all the best.

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