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Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as Dramatic License

Dramatic License

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Seven years ago, Peggie Boring cast her students in a controversial play called Independence and turned her small town inside out.

Peggie Boring fell in love with Independence the very first time she read it. That was in the late 1980s, about five years after the play's professional premiere. At the time, the playwright, Lee Blessing, was winning wide acclaim for A Walk in the Woods, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that probes the Cold War's daunting geopolitics through the friendship of two arms-control negotiators, one American and one Soviet.

Independence, however, is a very different play. Set in a frame house in rural Iowa, it dissects the desperate dysfunction of an abusive single mother and her three daughters: Sherry, a promiscuous teenager; Jo, 25 years old and pregnant with an illegitimate child; and Kess, a 33-year-old lesbian. The play touches on themes of sexuality, but its literary core is the struggle of the four women to love one another and repair fractured family ties.

As Boring turned the pages of Independence, its passion overwhelmed her. A drama and English teacher at Charles D. Owen High School in the town of Black Mountain in western North Carolina, she was impressed that Blessing, a man, could craft rich and dynamic roles for women, much as Tennessee Williams did. Tucking her new-found treasure away, she dreamed of the day she could use it with her students.

That day came in 1991. Her advanced acting class that year included four girls. Three were seniors, one was a junior. Since taking over Owen High's drama program in 1979, Boring had designed a "professional track" of courses for students who wanted to pursue careers in the performing arts. These girls were veterans of that program, and Boring considered them seasoned actresses. Performing such a powerful play would touch their lives, she thought. The language was rough, and its themes were mature, but these girls could handle that.

Seven years later, the curtain has yet to fall on the controversy that Boring sparked with her selection of Independence. Though the girls went on to win a slew of awards in a statewide theater competition, many people in Black Mountain, nearby Asheville, and surrounding Buncombe County never came to grips with the play. Independence polarized the community and made the teacher a pariah. Parents of Boring's students rallied around her, but others condemned her as a Satan bent on promoting immorality, homosexuality, and even bestiality. At year's end, she was transferred to a middle school.

Today, at 56, Boring is center stage in a legal drama whose final scenes will be scripted hundreds of miles from Black Mountain, in the U.S. Supreme Court. After her transfer, Boring sued, claiming she was punished for the controversial views aired in the play. School officials, the suit alleged, had retaliated against her either because they disagreed with those views or because they wanted to mollify community leaders upset over the play's content. Regardless, she contends, they violated her constitutional right to free speech.

Buncombe County officials deny the allegations, claiming Boring's transfer had little to do with the play. In court briefs, they have tried to punch holes in her First Amendment claims, arguing that a high school play isn't speech that enjoys constitutional protection.

So far, the courts have seesawed on the case, with judges at times studying identical case law and reaching conclusions that are so diametrically opposed that they're almost laugh-out-loud funny. That's in part because the Supreme Court's rulings leave a lot open to interpretation. While the court has often thundered about the sanctity of academic freedom in cases involving universities or colleges, it has never directly addressed the question of whether this cherished notion of education actually applies to K-12 schools.

Whatever the outcome of Boring's case, the stakes are high. School lawyers warn that a ruling validating Boring's free-speech argument would give teachers carte blanche to teach whatever they want. Teacher advocates and civil liberties groups, meanwhile, worry that a decision against Boring could snuff out all First Amendment protection for teachers in the classroom.

What gets lost in these legalistic formulations is the subtle irony at work in Margaret Boring vs. Buncombe County Board of Education, et al. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Boring's appeal and articulates a clear position on public schools and academic freedom, it will be because a drama teacher at a little school in the mountains of North Carolina put on a play aptly called Independence.

A native of Massachusetts and the daughter of a Navy pilot, Peggie Boring came to live in western North Carolina in the 1970s when her husband got a job in Asheville. They eventually divorced, and though her husband moved away, Boring stayed.

'This was not a play we could have invited Aunt Bessie to. But it was for a competition, and we understood that. It was our daughters' chance to get scholarships and go off to college.'

Derry Carpenter,
parent

Over the years, Boring built an award-winning drama program at Owen High. Each year, her advanced acting class entered a statewide theatrical contest for secondary students. The competition was a chance for the kids from Owen, a little school bunkered in the Swannanoa Valley, to square off against the big-city kids from Raleigh and Charlotte. It was also an opportunity for them to catch the eye of college drama instructors, win scholarships, and get a ticket out of the place some of them called "Swanna-nowhere."

Boring didn't think twice about her choice of Independence for her advanced acting class in 1991. The play openly discusses issues of sexuality-Kess, the lesbian, delivers a short soliloquy on the alienation of being a teenage homosexual, and there's a scene in which the mother catches Sherry in bed with a boy-but it doesn't dwell on them. Nor does playwright Blessing seem to endorse his characters' sexual proclivities. Indeed, he's painted them as deeply troubled women who seem to believe that they can soothe their ailing souls by reclaiming their family's love. At one point, Kess, the oldest daughter, says, "It's more important to go through the motions of being a happy family than it is to actually feel like one-at least at this point. The more we act like a normal, happy family, the better the chances we'll become one someday."

Recognizing the play's mature themes and coarse language, however, Boring gave each student a copy of the script and asked them to discuss it with their parents. The parents raised no objections. "This was not a play we could have invited Aunt Bessie to," recalls Derry Carpenter, whose daughter Elizabeth played Kess. "But it was for a competition, and we understood that. It was our daughters' chance to get scholarships and go off to college."

After school opened in August, the girls took to the task of developing their characters with gusto. In class, Boring led discussions in which they explored the characters' motivations and emotions, analyzed the family's dynamics, and pondered the causes of its breakdown. These sessions were intense, sometimes emotional, but the hard work paid off. In November, at the regional level of the state theater competition, the play won 17 of 21 awards, including best actress for Elizabeth Carpenter and best director for Boring. The performance also earned the girls a spot in the state finals the next month in Greensboro.

Soon after, a fellow Owen High English teacher asked Boring to put on Independence for her honors class. Boring had never intended the play for a school audience; she had selected it strictly for competition. But she agreed after warning her colleague about its content and asking that the students get their parents' approval before seeing the play. Permission slips were sent home, but somehow, at least one of the parents learned about the play only after the fact. On a Sunday night in mid-November, only a few weeks before the state finals, Owen High principal Fred Ivey got a phone call from a mother complaining about Independence.

Ivey later claimed the call was the first he had heard of the play. Boring, he contended, had never told him of the production. The teacher, however, contends that she had reviewed her plans for the season's productions with the principal at the start of the year. The conversation was brief-she traditionally gave Ivey a rundown of the titles-but Boring recalls that she specifically mentioned Blessing's Independence.

Regardless, when Ivey investigated the mother's complaint and read the script, he canceled the production. "I am greatly disappointed that a play with graphic vulgarity and profanity and strong controversial content was allowed to be performed by Owen students," he wrote Boring in a December memo. "I fully believe poor judgment was used in selecting such a play . . ."

When the parents of the girls protested the move, however, Ivey relented and agreed that an edited version of the play could be performed in Greensboro. He ordered that the script be stripped of profanity and insisted that Boring cut dialogue in which Sherry describes making a sculpture of lawn ornaments and putting "the little fawn and the stable boy together in an unnatural act."

Whatever the effect of these edits, Independence went on to capture second place at the state finals. The play's three seniors earned college scholarships, and by year's end, the Independence controversy appeared over.

About seven months later, Ivey proposed to the district's personnel chief that Boring be transferred. Enrollment changes had left Owen High's English department flush and its math department short one teacher, he wrote in a June memo. If someone needed to be reassigned to accommodate a new math teacher, he said, it should be Boring because of "personal conflicts resulting from actions that she has initiated during the course of this school year." Buncombe County superintendent Frank Yeager agreed to Ivey's request and reassigned Boring to Valley Springs Middle School.

The move re-ignited the controversy. Dozens of area ministers and a few community leaders signed an ad in the Asheville Citizen-Times that hailed Boring's transfer. Independence, they wrote, "took God's name in vain" and "presented sexual promiscuity, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality."

"I remember reading it and thinking, I had taught for 14 years in that community," Boring says. "They knew me. And they knew me better than that."

Boring's supporters-many of them parents of current and former students-mobilized, too, circulating petitions, organizing a letter-writing campaign, and running a Citizen-Times ad that asked: "If Peggie Boring can be transferred, who's next?"


Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 25-28

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