MERCEDES BONNER LEADERSHIP AWARD

Victoria Orepitan

Victoria Orepitan, English I Pre-AP-GT Teacher and Team Lead at Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, Texas, is this year’s Mercedes Bonner Leadership Award recipient. Victoria has been teaching at Cinco Ranch High School since 2013 and has been teaching since 2006.

In December of 2017, the award-winning young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was removed from the shelves of the junior high and high schools of Katy ISD. Superintendent Lance Hindt made the decision to pull the title, citing vulgar language as his primary objection to the book. Although district policy calls for a challenged book to remain in circulation pending a review, for many weeks The Hate U Give was unavailable for student check out. Once the book was returned to the shelves, it was available only to students who had parental consent to read it.

Victoria felt that it was important to speak up in the face of the superintendent’s action. At the district’s school board meeting on January 15, 2018, Victoria addressed the board to express her concern about the decision to restrict access to the book. She had the courage to do so despite her feeling that a clear message had been sent to district employees, through off- the-record conversations, that they should not speak at the meeting. “That didn’t sit right with me,” explained Victoria in an interview for the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award. “We have a responsibility to our society to make it better by speaking up for what we believe in.”

In her testimony to the school board, Victoria shared that she is a product of Katy ISD, having attended elementary, junior high, and high school in the district. “When I grew up in Katy ISD, there weren’t as many people that looked like me as there are now,” she said, adding that she

hoped to one day raise children of her own in Katy ISD and that it was important to her that those children have opportunities “to read stories about people who look like them . . . that we don’t rob them of that opportunity because something makes us uncomfortable, or we don’t like the language, or we don’t like the content.”

Victoria acknowledges that it is especially important that she as a black teacher speak up about what having access to books like The Hate U Give means to students. 

“People like Starr don’t get to tell their stories very often,” she explains, observing that in our society, we are more comfortable with having students read about the traumatic experiences of a teenager in war-torn Afghanistan than those of a teenager right here at home. She testified to the school board that in an English class, it i’s expected that students encounter texts that expose them to different cultures and different thinking, citing her own students’ study of Oedipus Rex, “a difficult and complex and sometimes controversial story,” as one such example.

“We can’t change the world kids live in, but we can equip them for it, and one of the best ways to do that is by exposing them to worlds that are different from theirs, ” Victoria testified. “None of us thinks our kids will become wizards because they read Harry Potter, but they are more sensitive and more creative because they’ve read the story of someone who’s been through something difficult. That is also true for The Hate U Give.

Challenged by Superintendent Hindt as to whether she would allow a student in her classroom to use vulgarity like that in the novel, Victoria responded that if the student were talking about a passage from the book that he or she had read, then yes, she would. “There’s a power to words,” she later elaborated. “I want students to understand the impact of these words within the literature.”

The challenge to The Hate U Give opened the door to additional challenges to students’ freedom to read. For example, a parent contacted Victoria’s administrator about her teaching of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, complaining that the book promoted immorality. She offered to respond to the parent directly, but her administrator declined to have her talk with the parent. In relating this incident, Victoria expressed concern about the precedent set by the district’s action with The Hate U Give: the idea that what some parents find personally offensive might be allowed to limit what other students have access to read.

Her courageous example makes Victoria Orepitan an excellent candidate for the 2019 TCTELA Mercedes Bonner Leadership Award.