The educator, Toby Price, was filling in for a special guest scheduled to read to a bunch of second graders over Zoom earlier this month after the guest did not show up.
Price had texted his boss, who told him to go ahead and read to the kids himself, he told NBC News.
“I wasn’t planning on reading, but I went ahead and grabbed one of my books that I had nearby. One of my favorites,” Price told the outlet.
It was Dawn McMillan’s “I Need A New Butt!,” an illustrated picture book marketed toward elementary-age audiences. It centers on a young boy who suddenly notices a problem with his butt: It has a crack.
“It’s hilarious,” Price told NBC. In an interview with The Washington Post, he defended it as being just “a funny, silly book” that can help teach kids reading can be fun.
The Zoom included more than 200 children from Gary Road Elementary School, which is part of the Hinds County School District system near Jackson, Mississippi.
Price told The New York Times that he “expected a write up” after learning administrators were unhappy with his decision ― not getting fired. “I cried the entire way home,” he told the Times.
Superintendent Delesicia Martin said in her termination letter to Price that the reading caused “unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement” and displayed “a lack of professionalism and impaired judgment” on the assistant principal’s part, violating the state’s code of ethics for educators. Martin appeared to take issue with the book’s reference to farting and its depictions of butts. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.
Price told news outlets that administrators were concerned about getting complaints from parents, but said he was not aware of any complaints himself.
McMillan’s book has spawned several follow-ups from the New Zealand author, such as, “I Broke My Butt!” The original, published in 2012, shows a child setting off to find a new butt.
“Will he choose an armor-plated butt? A rocket butt? A robot butt? Find out in this quirky tale of a tail, which features hilarious rhymes and delightful illustrations,” reads a description on Dover Publications’ website. “Children and parents will love this book — no ifs, ands, or butts about it!”
PEN America, a literary nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, sent the district a strongly worded letter criticizing its decision and has started an online petition against the teacher’s firing. The group also published a photo of Martin’s letter to Price, dated March 3.
“Certainly, the book in question is meant to be humorous for a young audience, and fellow educators might reasonably question if it was the optimal choice for this particular occasion. But in positioning the act of reading a book as a violation of ethics, the district is implying that any educator could be terminated under similar circumstances, whenever an anonymous source feels a book read to students is ‘inappropriate’ for any reason,” read the PEN America’s message to the district. “Such a precedent could be readily abused, enforced with unbridled discretion to censor the reading of books in schools.”
Banned books have gotten renewed attention across the country in recent months as Republican lawmakers have sought to ban schools from teaching about uncomfortable truths in history, such as racism.