By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
When MEA member Sarah Ellis learned she had several months to create five works of art on a theme of “inspiration,” she chose to honor her school district’s media specialist – Christine Beachler – who has faced ongoing harassment while staunchly defending students’ access to books over three years.
The question was how to convey all she knew, believed and felt about the work of her Lowell Area Schools colleague and fellow MEA member?
“I wanted to dedicate a series of paintings to Christine because she’s a rock star—she’s withstood unrelenting attacks with incredible poise and just continued to uphold what we all believe in and the freedoms we value,” Ellis said. “And it got me thinking: what would that look like?
“How do I get across what’s happening related to books, and what that means for our larger society, while also showing in some slight way the battle behind the scenes of fighting for our freedom of information and our democracy?”
The five related oil paintings on canvas that resulted are beautifully moody and contemplative works, featuring stacks of books arranged in various configurations and populated with miniature people painted from tiny faceless figurines used to decorate model train sets of the 1950s.
“I ordered a bunch of the plastic train figurines thinking they would create a sort of stifled nod to the McCarthyism of that era,” Ellis said.
The work was featured earlier this summer in a show of four distinct exhibitions by four groups of artists – called Connections – at Lowell Arts. The three artists in Ellis’s exhibit are all art teachers at Lowell High School, who created in the “Inspirations” theme. The show ran through late June.
Her personal favorite, titled “Deep Dive,” shows a woman in orange standing on the precarious edge of a messy stack of books – one leg slightly bent as if she might leap off. Another features a book standing spine up with a woman sitting atop it and turned away from a second figure below.
“That’s called ‘What Binds Us,’ and that one – to me – signifies not working with each other, turning away from one another and turning away from facts,” Ellis said.
One of the paintings includes no people. Titled “All Books Aren’t Blue,” the piece is an homage to a frequently banned book that survived a challenge in Lowell this year, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, a memoir about growing up Black and queer.
“The very top book (in the painting) gives the illusion of the cover from All Boys Aren’t Blue, and having the shadow on either side be in blue is a nod to that as well, with composition and placement of things to make it interesting.”
Ellis said she wanted to recognize the admirable courage and accomplishments of the Lowell district’s only certified librarian – who serves as treasurer of her local union in addition to other roles – but also to acknowledge her friend and colleague’s humanity in the face of personal attacks.
“Christine upholds such an amazing standard for what education and educators can do in the face of adversity, but she’s human and she hurts,” Ellis said.
The inspiration for it all – Beachler – said she found Ellis’s work of tribute deeply moving.
“Sarah is just very thoughtful and inspiring, and when I saw her artwork it made me realize if I didn’t have support from wonderful people like her, I don’t know how I could have kept going,” Beachler said.
The past few years have been increasingly difficult as a small group of people have used bullying and harassment to try to remove books they find objectionable from school libraries, she said. Beachler has faced a barrage of terrible name-calling at board meetings and online.
Beachler’s work was featured last year in part three of our five-part series, Freedom to Read, on rising book bans in Michigan and across the country.
She has been verbally accosted at the grocery store and even at a family picnic in the park in her small town east of Grand Rapids. A certified media specialist for 23 years, Beachler just completed her 35th year in education and needed to take time off from work due to stress this year.
“It’s something I never thought I would have to endure being a school librarian,” she said. “Most days I know I’m doing the right thing and doing my job to the best of my ability, and I have great support from my administration and from our staff and our community. But there are some days where I just fall apart and cry.”
This year for the first time in the district’s history, two books were formally challenged. Beachler followed her profession’s best practices, longstanding board policy, and the law in determining the outcome for All Boys Aren’t Blue and the sun and her flowers.
Two separate committees of seven people, including a parent, student, teachers and administrators, read and discussed the books before voting 6-1 and 7-0 to keep them on the shelves. Both decisions were reviewed by the school board and upheld in votes of 7-0 and 6-1.
In one case, the complainant went on to file a police report against the school board claiming district officials were distributing pornography. The same people continue to speak against books and use derogatory insults and personal smears against Beachler and other school officials at meetings and on social media.
“I’m not really sure what more we can do,” she said. “We already offer every single parent the ability to choose every book for their own child, and that’s not enough; they want to choose the books for everybody’s children even though the other parents don’t want that.”
Last November, Beachler was honored by the Michigan Association of Media in Education – now renamed the Michigan Association of School Librarians – with the Roger Ashley Freedom to Read Award, which recognizes an individual or group who demonstrates exemplary support for First Amendment rights.
“Walking through all of these challenges has been difficult, but it is definitely wonderful to have recognition from the professional organization and support from so many people – especially other school librarians that have gone through similar situations.”
Equally meaningful was an end-of-the-school-year conversation Beachler had with a student who stopped in to thank her for defending young people’s access to books. Beachler does not talk with students about what is happening unless they bring it up, she said.
“We had a lovely conversation, and she was full of grace, mature and well-spoken, and she looked at me and said, ‘Thank you for speaking up for our rights because if it wasn’t for you, none of this would be possible.’ When she walked out, I just fell apart in tears.”
Beachler said Ellis’s artwork similarly “hit my heart very hard.”
“That’s what life is, I guess, trudging through the trials and tribulations of parts of your journey and having people to be there for you when you need them. I mean—what else is there? It’s how you deal with those parts of your life that give it meaning.”
For her part, Ellis hoped to honor not only Beachler’s courage but her determination. For example, after the district used $100,000 in federal funding to update library collections in all six schools, Beachler won a $60,000 state grant to staff extended hours – even through summer for high schoolers
“She’s making things available for students and families, ordering things for everybody and anybody, and generally doing her job very well,” Ellis said. “She’s got her game on with all of these policies and procedures in place to uphold our ideals, and she holds everything together.”
Soon some of the works made in her honor will grace the high school library’s walls. After visiting the exhibit with Ellis, Beachler secretly returned to the gallery and bought two of the paintings.
“They’re beautiful pieces, and they mean the world to me,” Beachler said. “I’m so happy that I’ll be able to look out there and see them, and they can keep me going.”
Editor’s note: Christine Beachler was one of many MEA members featured last year in Freedom to Read, our five-part series on rising book bans in Michigan and across the country.