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Thoughts on Plattsmouth | Our Prairie Nest

Thoughts on Plattsmouth

Yesterday was 9/11, the anniversary of the attacks on our country that, for a brief time, kind of, sort of, united some people in the U.S. This post will publish after I speak at the Plattsmouth School District Board Meeting about these very same thoughts. However, the public speaking forum is limited to 3 minutes there, so this is my opportunity to elaborate on what I said there.

I’m going to dig into something going on in the town where I live. In the interest of full disclosure, I live outside city limits, so my children did not and do not attend the school district in town. They attend another one nearby and I have nothing but good things to say about the schools, teachers, administrators, and board members. We are so fortunate. But the town in which I work is less fortunate in that regard.

There is a Plattsmouth School Board member by the name of Terri Cunningham-Swanson. I remember the first time I met her in 2020, because she gives off a vibe, and when she ran for office I warned people against voting for her. Unfortunately, she was elected and immediately used her role to challenge and remove books from Plattsmouth School District libraries. Why? Because she deemed them “pornography,” which is incorrect and misleading.

The list of books she removed – or wants “reviewed” and banned – from the schools have themes of racism, drugs, LGBTQ+ sexuality, and gender identity. The only thing “wrong” with them is that she personally doesn’t like the content. People like her (Christian fundamentalists aka fragile white women) can’t handle or comprehend the thought of other people’s children having the freedom to learn about the world through the eyes of another in books.

The thing about this little campaign on her part is that she is taking people who already distrust public schools (often because public schools have been the place where concerns about their children’s behaviors, or how these people parent and/or discipline their children come up), and whipping them up into a hateful frenzy to trust them even less. Rather than trust the people who have gone to college and continue to pursue ongoing education to keep their teaching degrees and skills relevant, these folks act as though they know better than everyone else. Never mind the fact that most of them have no comprehension of education and teaching, or the safety net so many schools provide families and children.

There is an inherent selfishness in demanding that public education and teachers conform to their views. The goal appears to be to dumb down our future voters, keep them from accessing ideas outside the ones these folks find acceptable, and prevent children from developing and growing into their own identities. In one breath, they claim public education has an agenda and, in another, push theirs. Public education does have an agenda, and that is to give children the knowledge they need to function as adults, the thinking skills to make informed decisions, and to teach them civic responsibility.

The thing is, these fundamentalists are welcome to their personal beliefs. Whatever gives them comfort, whatever gets them through the day. They are also welcome to indoctrinate and dictate to their own children, but not everyone else’s.

If a person doesn’t like public schools, they shouldn’t enroll their children in them. There are private schools and homeschooling. I think homeschooling is fantastic! I homeschooled my son until, at the age of 10, he said he would like to attend public school. I chose homeschooling at the time, because schools aren’t structured to accommodate everyone’s individual learning styles and needs.

But when we moved to Nebraska, we found ourselves in an amazing school district that exceeded my expectations and I respected my son’s choice. When you send a child to public or private school after years of homeschooling, you go through a myriad of emotions… mostly self-doubt. Did I do a good job? Does he know what he needs to know? Will he be able to keep up with his peers. Yes, yes, and yes! He graduated from our local high school in 2021 with his peers. My daughter has attended our school district since preschool. She will graduate in 2031 and I couldn’t be happier with our schools.

That said, not everyone can afford the privilege of homeschooling or private school, so they have to place their children in public schools. But the beauty of that is you don’t need someone advocating for “parents’ rights,” the current extremist code words meant to frighten parents, just like “pornography.” You already have rights as a parent or guardian when it comes to your child’s education. For example, I opted my son out of ASVAB testing at the high school, after a talk about considering all of his career options, including the military. I opted my daughter out of the D.A.R.E. program in 5th grade, after a talk about why she didn’t want to participate, and clarification that she understands the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and smoking, as well as reporting things like inappropriate contact/touching of her body. Yeah. We have those conversations, because we’re involved parents, and we allowed our children to make their own decisions, because we respect their ability to think for themselves.

Let me say this again: You. Already. Have. Parents’. Rights. If you want to opt your child out of a certain class or test, request they not participate in a program or be allowed to read a particular book, you can do that. You can reach out to the teacher, librarian, guidance counselor, or administrator, and respectfully request this. Obviously, it’s not the time to get into your beliefs if you give a little explanation. It’s just literally, “Hi, I’d like for my child to not do the thing. Thanks.” If they ask for clarification, give as much as you feel comfortable giving, but avoid using that to cast doubt or blame on the staff or school. Everyone is just trying to do their job of helping prepare your child for the real world… and perhaps those same children will eventually be able to make the real world a better and more equal, inclusive, and fair place.

The big problem with people like Terri – and women often aligned with hate groups such as  “Moms for Liberty” – is that they have made it their mission to take over these schools, to take away student and parent rights, and to disrupt public education. School boards are intended to be bipartisan, but these people come in with partisan agendas that have nothing to do with advancing public education, advocating for our teachers, or supporting our students. They use lies, disinformation, and emotional manipulation to do this, and they call out anyone who doesn’t agree with them or has the labial fortitude to stand up to them.

I am not a therapist, so I cannot presume to diagnose these people. I do think they are filled with fear and I occasionally feel pity for them. But the unhinged rants they post, the ways they conduct themselves in public, and the coded language they use to incite fear is all part of a larger strategy to exploit parents, none of which invites one to try to see them with empathy.

Their actions are also an exploitation of Christianity, as they often invoke God and the Bible, but only so far as it serves their interests. When you call them out for hypocrisy and un-Christlike behavior, they ban you like a book. Their detachment from reality is to the point that you absolutely cannot reason with them so, even if you want to try to meet them with civility, it’s best not to waste your energy, because they are not going to respond with the same courtesy.

Terri Cunningham-Swanson has a public support group where you can see this behavior for yourself. There are plenty of examples of her calling people out and then watching her followers pile on with abusive language, demonizing anyone who disagrees with her. They have done it to an 18-year-old (odd for people who claim to want to protect children; the age of majority in Nebraska is 19) who spoke out against her to the local news. Her justification for this? “He doesn’t live here.”

This young man grew up in and graduated from the same school district as my son. This is an incredibly small county (just over 30,000 people according to a count in 2021). All the towns are inter-connected through activities, sports, and more. Those of us in rural Plattsmouth neighborhoods share a zip code with this woman and her growing cult. A woman who isn’t from Plattsmouth, but then turns around after crapping on people who grew up in this zip code to state she “chose” to live here, and therefore believes she has more right to say what goes than anyone else. Her words have more twists and turns than a labyrinth.

She further went on to do the same to me, except this time she and her followers hurled abusive language and discrimination at me based on my religion. Obviously, because these are Christian fundamentalists, they don’t respect other spiritual paths, let alone care to understand or accept them. To a religious extremist, those of us who are non-Christian are considered fair game to discriminate against, mock, belittle, and name call. This is, again, exploiting Christianity as a whole by making anyone who identifies as a Christian appear to be part of this hate group, when in actuality all Christians don’t share the same views.

How frustrating must it for my Christian friends and acquaintances to have to let people know you’re a safe person, a loving and accepting person, and that these bigots don’t speak for you? 

It is clear that, besides giving their religion a bad name, Terri and her followers don’t respect the Constitution or any other human’s rights. If they knew how to look deeper, they would stop and think about their actions and assumptions. Because many of us have done more for this country than they could ever comprehend, not that they care.

What I am, for those who don’t know me, is an involved parent who has successfully raised a son to adulthood, and is now facing the challenges of raising an adolescent daughter. Yes, I identify as someone on a Pagan spiritual path, specifically practicing as a Hedge Witch. No, I have not indoctrinated my children to think or believe like me. My first husband was Christian, and we raised our son with exposure to Christianity, Paganism, Buddhism, and found a lovely compromise as a family with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Dover, Delaware. I was a founding member of that church and loved every moment of it. With all of that opportunity and varied spiritual experiences placed in front of my son, he is an Atheist. I absolutely approve of and accept this, and have zero judgment about it.

My daughter knows her spiritual decisions are her own to make, too. I don’t believe in hurting anyone, not even a fly if I can help it (just ask my husband or co-workers). But I also don’t believe in making decisions for others, except for the safety of my child as long as she is under the age of 18. Sometimes, we make parental decisions after discussion with our daughter. Sometimes, it’s a “because I said so” parenting moment. We parents set the boundaries in our household, but we also give space to my daughter to set her own boundaries. Respect goes both ways.

I work in a law firm. I have worked in law since 1994, and at this particular firm since 2019. This firm serves not just Plattsmouth, but the greater Omaha metro. In my capacity as our client engagement manager, I am often the first person people speak to or see. It is a position that requires tact, respect, diplomacy, and empathy. Many people in Plattsmouth are familiar with this firm and have had direct contact with me. They know the kind of person I am, that I do care about what they might be going through and want to help them.

Last, but not least, and pertinent to my remarks at the school board meeting last night, I was a military spouse for over 20 years. My first husband, whose military service began in 1984, and I were married in 1993, a month after I graduated from high school. The attacks on 9/11 were a watershed moment. I remember turning to him and saying, “You’re going to leave soon, aren’t you?” He did. My friends’ husbands left. Everyone around Dover Air Force Base had places to be and duties to fulfill in response to the terrorist attacks on our nation. Our lives changed significantly. My friends and I worried and fretted and lived each day with uncertainty until our husbands returned. Ours did return. We were the lucky ones. And then I had my post-deployment baby, my son.

For half of the first six years of my son’s life, his father was gone. I spent the first year parenting alone, and subsequent years on our own for months at a time. But I had wonderful communities around me – military, Pagan, and UU – and was honored to be appointed as a Key Spouse for my husband’s squadron. It gave me the opportunity to be a support and resource for other spouses separated by deployments and remotes.

Eventually, my first husband and I went through an amicable divorce, and then I married my second husband, who was also in the Air Force at the time. We were living in England when my husband’s enlistment ended and we had to decide where we would settle our family. We agreed to move to the town where we now live in Nebraska. My husband spent his early elementary school years in this town and the school our daughter now attends. His father, who passed away in 2004, was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base and my husband’s happy childhood memories are what brought us here.

I certainly had my reservations, but I found everyone here in our small town welcoming. One lovely aspect of this area is how many prior military families also live here. They understand the unique experiences and challenges that I, as a military wife, have had, and I understand theirs.

My husband and I are both bisexual/pansexual, and I had a very successful career as a LGBTQ+ author before I decided it was exhausting. I still write and publish, but not full-time. Besides loving books as both a reader and writer, I am also a genealogist and DNA enthusiast, and I teach classes about genealogy, DNA, and writing as an adjunct instructor at one of the local community colleges. I also love cross-stitching and making jigsaw puzzles, and playing both video games and RPGs. D&D is my favorite as both a player and DM, but I’m always up for Star Wars, Cyberpunk, and other RPG campaigns.

So that’s me, the oh-so-scary Pagan lady living in rural Plattsmouth. I’m just sitting here, cross-stitching something or making a puzzle, reading a book, or trying to figure out if the story about my 3rd great-grandpa dying at his home in Italy during WWII at the age of 104 is true.

All this to say that, of course, what I and others gave and sacrificed as a military spouse or member isn’t something people like Terri Cunningham-Swanson and her followers respect. They say “God Bless America” with a straight face, but what they mean is only an America that conforms to their narrow-minded beliefs. They claim to respect the military, but only cis-het white military members and spouses who fit a stereotype. They fail to recognize that the military is incredibly diverse, as are both our country and our small community.

When you walk into my house, you will see a doormat that says In This House We Believe:

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Love is Love
  • Science is Real
  • Feminism is for Everyone
  • Humans are Not Illegal
  • Kindness is Everything

I think it ought to add that Transgender Lives Matter. Also, if you don’t agree with the above sentiments, all of which my children have grown/are growing up with, I don’t want to be your friend. But I do want to know where any or all of these things hurt you so much and understand the hateful place your heart is in, because I try never to lose hope that everyone can eventually accept everyone else. 

Diversity scares the people who believe in banning books and they will continue to fight for a homogenous society that makes them feel safe, in all their heterosexual, white fragility. This is why I pity them, because I don’t understand their fear. But fear is powerful and often drives people to hurt others. They think it’s “for your own good,” like when they use physical punishment against their own children. They can always find a way to justify hurting people.

Be mindful of that and consider taking this terrible experience with Terri and her followers as a lesson: a lesson that teaches us take a closer, more critical look at our local elections. Hate often dresses itself up with language designed to appeal to you, and you may never recognize it until its too late.

Again, I get that these people are scared. The world is always changing. There is no going back to hiding in a closet, and many of us were never there in the first place. I understand that these people fear what they can’t control. And that’s what they want, to control everyone else. They may claim that’s not the case, but why else would they deprive as many people as possible of access to information, of the freedom to make their own choices?

In the end, people like that are often seen for who and what they really are, anyway.