The Rio Rancho Public Schools (RRPS) district has a problem. And the district might have you believe that problem is Katrina Guarascio.
In early October I ran into Guarascio—a talented and well-known poet and local publisher—at UNM after a reading, and she told me that she was on academic probation from her job as a creative writing teacher at Rio Rancho’s V. Sue Cleveland High School. Guarascio had assigned her students to take a classic text and make it their own. And so one of her students adapted the Bible story of Jesus feeding a crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fish. In the student’s retelling, Jesus performed this trick with medical marijuana and then shared it with people who were sick. This was, of course, unacceptable, because altering any Bible story is explicitly banned in the Constitution/Bible, which are basically the same thing. Or—anyway—it was unacceptable to another student. (All of the above sarcasm and editorializing is my own, not Guarascio’s. She’s classy and would never stoop to such deserved ridicule.)
As a result of this, Guarascio was put on three weeks of academic probation. The school seemed to object specifically to Guarascio’s use of peer review—the totally common practice of allowing small groups of students to read one another’s work and provide feedback. Literally almost every high school and college writing class I have ever taken used this practice, and RRPS’ objections to it, I suspect, are because they don’t like getting angry calls from fundamentalist parents, and so they gutlessly chose to blame a teacher.
And so one of her students adapted the Bible story of Jesus feeding a crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fish. In the student’s retelling, Jesus performed this trick with medical marijuana and then shared it with people who were sick. This was, of course, unacceptable, because altering any Bible story is explicitly banned in the Constitution/Bible, which are basically the same thing.
I had another encounter with Guarascio in early November at another reading, at Bookworks. I found out she had been allowed back by RRPS, so long as she never explained her suspension and so long as she ran her creative writing class in a way not so … creative. To me, it sounded like hell. Who wants to work for someone like that—for someone who so obviously does not understand what creative writing or free speech or even just effective teaching are about?
Evidently it was difficult for Guarascio too because just before Thanksgiving, feeling she had no other choice, she resigned. She took a stand against the restrictive actions of RRPS, and then her story caught fire, making headlines across the country. Everyone from the New York Daily News to unofficial OxyContin spokesperson Rush Limbaugh has discussed it.
“Ms. Guarascio chose to resign her position rather than follow the district’s direction that classes be administered in a professional manner and that all persons on a school campus behave appropriately,” said the school district, in an obviously bullshit statement that ignores that RRPS had a very similar case on their hands in 2003, when they fired poet Bill Nevins for allowing a student to write an anti-war poem—an incident that led to the very watchable documentary Committing Poetry in Times of War and a $205,000 settlement for Nevins. “Any suggestion that [Guarascio] was forced to resign because of students’ exercise of free speech rights is simply not true,” they continued.
The Rio Rancho Public Schools (RRPS) district has a problem. A serious problem. And that problem is not Katrina Guarascio.
See Guarascio speak and read in person, along with many of Albuquerque’s top poets, writers and musicians as part of La Resolana, an eclectic literary event, at the South Broadway Cultural Center (1025 Broadway SE) on Jan. 21. Go to cabq.gov/sbcc for more information. The event will honor Guarascio and her years of work, celebrate free speech and serve as a showcase of area talent.