Her production was inspired by a student in a wheelchair and wanted to see everyone have a chance to portray leading characters like Prince Charming – a twist of the script that Price calls “pretty amazing.”
Price looked at his phone. There was good news from a publisher. Price’s new children’s book, “The Almost True Adventures of Tytus the Monkey,” sold well in Canada. Then came another message. It was his lawyer.
Price worked as a temp at Kaleidoscope after being fired in early March from his Former employment. He was figuring out if his appeal to get his job back had succeeded.
Price’s dismissal as assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School in nearby Byram, Miss., Had rippled far beyond the Jackson area. His choice to read “I Need a New Butt!” – from a popular franchise intended for primary school and in stock by such mass dealers as Walmart – had placed him directly in the national culture war about which books are being pulled from classrooms and school libraries.
On March 1, he hosted a virtual reading for second-graders. When the planned reader of the event did not show up, Price was asked to jump into the breach. He picked a book from his shelf that he thought would be excitingly funny. “I need a new ass!” by Dawn McMillan and illustrator Ross Kinnaird was a favorite he had read to students at a former school.
Price thought his Zoom reading was a hit with the kids. Soon after, however, the headmaster questioned whether his book choice was appropriate. It contained cartoon shutters and referred to air in the stomach. Two days later, the Superintendent of Hinds County School District, Delesicia Martin, fired him. Price appealed the resignation at school board meetings.
On Monday afternoon, Price looked at his lawyer’s message: a report from Hinds County School District said the firing was sustained. The report, which Price shared with The Washington Post, read: “Mr. Price’s contract should be terminated because of his incompetence, negligence and for good reasons.” Two board members had voted “yes”; one member had voted “no”; and the other two had abstained.
“We expected this part to happen, but at the same time, it doesn’t make it any easier,” Price says. “It still stings.”
Price plans to appeal. The next step is the Mississippi Chancery Courts, and the state Supreme Court may come later, Price says. “If it’s where it ends, it’s where it ends.”
The fight so far has already tried on Price and his wife, Leah, who is secretary at Kaleidoscope Heights. They have three teenagers – Addison 19, and McKade, 18, who are autistic, and Marley Kate, who is bipolar.
His parents, who live nearby, have been a source of support. The same goes for the GoFundMe campaign, which has raised more than $ 125,000 for the family. He tries to cope and hope with the same warm humor that has characterized him as an educator for seven years in the elementary school classrooms and about 13 years in the administration.
Price feels anxious to support his family, even though he jokes about becoming “a good trophy man”. And he knows from challenging experiences. After all, he likes to say that an autistic parent never sleeps – they “just worry with their eyes closed.”
He says he has received job offers from abroad. But this is the home. This is where a neighbor stops to tell him how much he has meant to their school children. And this is where he will continue to seek job resumption and post-payment.
Because Price says there is something that can not be taken from him: his passion as an educator.
Price, 46, enjoys a rare quiet moment last week, he spoke from his living room that he has since been converted to an office. Outside are his two great Pyrenees dogs: Beatrice, named after a character in the Lemony Snicket books, and Artemis, after the intermediate sci-fi character Artemis Fowl.
In his home outside of Jackson, which is “loved and empathized,” the educator is surrounded by books and tchotchkes that reflect his love of education and nerd culture. In the laundry room hangs a Captain America shield. Even that makes Price think of the classroom. When he was a teacher, he says with a smile, “I had to pretend to be a superhero, but I didn’t have to wear tights.”
Price, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, says that as a boy he initially thought reading was boring. The real problem was “that I was not good at it”, but “luckily my parents gave me things I was interested in,” including comics.
Price turns in an office chair during a FaceTime call and grabs his copy of “I Need a New Butt!” “It’s the one,” he says with a quick swaying pull – his trimmed beard turns upwards with a laugh. He calls such silly books “children’s candy.”
In McMillan’s story, a boy who thinks he has broken his back goes in search of a replacement, whether it’s a robot shovel or a rocket shovel or one covered with armor. “I need a new ass!” is “funny and short, and the pictures are funny and really eye-catching,” Price says, adding, “Hand them those things. They’ll go after the vegetables later.”
However, the Hinds County School District did not find such art fun. “First of all, the book contains statements and cartoon images regarding bodily anatomy, bodily functions and removal of clothing to reveal private areas of the body in various positions,” it said in a statement released after an appeal. “These statements and pictures are inappropriate for an educator to read and show to second graders, especially without prior notice to students’ teachers.”
Both the district and Elizabeth Maron, the lawyer who represented it, did not respond to interview requests from The Post. McMillan declined a request for an interview.
Price says he was stunned on March 3 when he was called to a meeting with the principal and gets the choice between signing a resignation paper or being fired pending an appeal.
Leah Price soon heard a hiss in her phone. “I looked down and my stomach went to the floor,” she says. Her husband’s text read, “Baby, they’ll finish me off.” She asked him to breathe. Then she said to him, “Do not sign that paper. If you sign that paper, it is the same as admitting that you have done something wrong.… You read a book to some children. You have not done anything wrong. . “
Price took her advice and went out. “I started crying when I hit the car,” he says. “I drove down to Dollar General to get some zebra cakes, for what other way to eat your emotions than with a little Debbie?”
He says he does not know any parents who have complained about his book choice – though some educators told him they have been pulling books from their classrooms with extreme caution since his firing.
His friend Tom Angleberger, a child-educated author (“The Strange Case of Origami Yoda”) who once dedicated a book to the Prizes, also does not believe the teacher did anything wrong. He says Price met the second-graders at their level. “You can show them an ordinary book that is approved by everyone, and that’s them a little sad about it, ”he says. “Maybe they need something more fun, maybe they need something a little more rebellious, maybe they need something that’s going to shake things up a bit. I think he saw the scrapbook as a way to reach some children who might not have been thrilled if he had just said, ‘Okay, we need to read a safe book again today.’ ”
PEN America supported Price’s choice. In a letter to the school district, it writes non-profit organization defending freedom of expression wrote that punishing Price “is a threat to the freedom to read, learn and teach, which should be protected and maintained in schools. Reading and sharing literature, even if stupid topics, should be celebrated in public education, should not be a cause to punishment. “
In its report, the school board said the book contained “images of child and adult nudity and inappropriate actions.”
Still Joel Dillard, Price’s lawyer, says that in “I Need a New Butt!” they illustrated “depictions of a child subdivision that are most objectionable to of the district were imaginative, imaginary scenes. There was nothing remotely realistic – that was what made them funny.”
Angleberger compares the book’s comic book nudity to a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic or a Coppertone ad. He says that the humor in the premise is lost in the district’s interpretation. “Every child gets this right away – that it’s ridiculous,” says the author, noting that he has seen the book shown in the section for young readers in the family’s large stores. “Children get it, and it is the adults who have the fight. When we were growing up, some of us forgot that butts are fun. “
Wait, are you serious? That must be your joke.
Fired for a book? What do you smoke?
Price read that passage aloud to the school board during an appeal, as part of a poem he called “The Final Refusal of Mr. Price” who mixed humor with a serious sense of purpose.
He says he has often used laughter to endure personal adversity. He enjoys making others smile, even by writing a children’s book like “Tytus,” his first – a tale of “kindness, chaos, and autism.”
Meanwhile, he and his wife are considering what direction their lives will take during and after the next legal steps.
“I can count on one hand how many people in my life I know who do what they were created to do – I mean absolutely and completely placed on this earth, and do what they were created to do. Toby Price is one of those people, “Leah says, noting how her husband’s playful classroom projects have included scavenger hunt and Star Wars cosplay.” I’ve known it since the day I met him. He was created to be an educator, he was created to work with children, and he was created to be a father. He was put on this planet to share his love of reading and writing skills with children. “
Price, meanwhile, longs for the rhythms and routines of Gary Road Elementary. “I miss Field Day. I miss Fun Run. We had planned things for Star Wars Day. It stinks. I have three kids at home and I had 600 at work.”
A caption originally said the photo was taken at Price’s home. It’s actually taken in a park.