Carthage, Illinois is an agricultural community near the eastern border of Iowa with a population of around 2700. Everything about the town is quite typical except for one very devoted high school history teacher, Greg Hoener. For the past five years Mr. Hoener has been teaching an advanced, senior-level elective class called “Conflicts and Mysteries” at Illini West High School. The purpose of this class is to introduce students to progressive concepts in order to prepare them for life outside of the borders of their small-town. Mr. Hoener explains:
My goal is to give my kids firsthand knowledge and experience so … they’re able to stand on their own two feet and be better prepared to make the right choices and decisions in this real world.
The syllabus consists of a variety of non-traditional topics with hands-on activities, films, field trips and speakers. In the past, subjects have included:
- In-depth examinations of major historical events including the comparison of fact and fiction.
- Interviews with city officials including police and fire personnel, judges, a drug task force, juvenile probation officers, disaster response units.
- Discussions centering on unconventional topics such as the paranormal, ghost hunting, conspiracy theories, modern mythology, world religions (including faith-based speakers).
- “Military Week” including speakers from every military branch, members of the Navy SEALs and veterans of different wars.
- Real world safety including gun handling, self-defense tactics and the impact of driving while texting and drinking.
- A study of famous serial killers and crimes including the exposure to worst-case scenarios and how to survive.
Over this past summer Mr. Hoener asked Lydia Gittings, a local Wiccan practitioner and Illini West parent, to speak to the students about the Occult, Witchcraft and Wicca during his fall “Paranormal” unit. As an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the Program Chair of Spirit Web, Lydia welcomed the opportunity to dispel myths about Paganism within a safe and nurturing environment.
After several schedule changes, Lydia’s speaking engagement landed on Halloween. She spoke to three different classes covering some Wiccan and Occult basics such as the elements, energy manipulation, the aura, Tarot and the sacred circle. She showed the students an athame, a chalice and a pendulum. Lydia also explained the notion of Paganism as an umbrella term that includes a diversity of religious practices.
In retrospect she says “There were a couple of students who were visibly uncomfortable in each class… but I remained positive and kept going back to science. I wasn’t there to convert.” When a student asked about the Ouija aboard, she carefully explained the concept of spirit guides and communicating with those “beyond the veil.” However, she never demonstrated the board’s use because several students voiced apprehension.
The school began receiving complaints almost immediately. In fact one parent called the office shortly after the first class. As a result, Principal Brad Gooding attended both remaining classes. Lydia remembers Principal Gooding being “supportive” and calling her lecture “interesting.”
Over the following two weeks parental complaints were minimal. However that changed Nov. 13 when the Hancock County Journal-Pilot printed a “letter to the editor” written by former teacher LaRae Roth. That letter became the catalyst of a community-wide outcry. Ms. Roth wrote:
No, I am not on a witch hunt. There is no need to hunt when you can simply look to your local public school to provide one … Since parents were not notified in advance, I had no opportunity to express my deep concerns in this matter and to prevent my son and his classmates from being exposed to potentially dangerous information about the occult.
Although parents had in fact been informed of class content, this detail was not enough to stop the coming storm. The complaints only escalated, originating mostly from outside the school community. On Nov. 26, four of these outraged citizens attended the school Board meeting. According to The Journal-Pilot, they voiced a genuine concern for student safety calling the inclusion of Wicca “dangerous.” Shortly after that meeting, the Board canceled the class.
However the story doesn’t end there. Over the next two weeks these small-town students and many of their parents, most of whom are Christian, rallied to defend the teacher and save the class. Anne-Marie Scott, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, led the charge which included a Facebook page. She says:
I don’t know everything but I know enough about Paganism and Wicca to not run for a pitchfork out of fear. I know I have raised my daughter to stand firm in her convictions and to stand up for those who need defending. She knows that information is power… Kids from small towns need a little more worldly exposure to gain some understanding on diversity before they are thrust into college where there is no safety net.
On Dec. 18, the school board held its monthly meeting before a standing-room only crowd. For two hours, the Board listened to pleas and arguments from students, parents and other citizens including representatives from the Carthage Fire and Police departments and a local Christian minister. Leading the way was Anne-Marie who read a prepared speech in which she said:
As for Wicca, as is true with anything, ignorance breeds fear. Fear eventually turns into prejudice and prejudice almost always ends in violence. The only way out of that is education and enlightenment. Mr. Hoener provides that and does so in an exceptional manner … If [a parent] doesn’t want the responsibility of what this class brings then, quite simply, the child should take a different class.
At one point an unnamed speaker said, “I agree with everything that’s been said here but I’d like to hear from someone who doesn’t.” Not a single person stood up.
The very next day the Board reinstated the class with the understanding that Mr. Hoener would rework the syllabus. The Board really had very little choice. Just days before this landmark meeting Mr. Hoener was awarded $1,000 by a local CBS affiliate for the very “out of the box” class causing all the controversy.
As the situation escalated, Lydia Gittings maintained a respectful distance, watching closely from the sidelines. While she was never personally attacked, she was prepared to ask for assistance from the Pagan community. Fortunately there was never a need.
Lydia said, “This was not about me and my path. It was about the kids and saving the class.” She called the students’ response “beautiful,” adding “they saw something that they believed in” and reacted. Even outside of the classroom, Mr. Hoener managed to empower his students.
At this point only administrators and Mr. Hoener know exactly what the new syllabus will or won’t include. Neither was available for comment. Among parents, it is believed the changes will focus solely on the clarity of communication. Both Lydia and Anne-Marie stressed that Wicca wasn’t the only “sticking point.” Many class topics were contentious and difficult to swallow. Wicca was just the easiest to attack or perhaps even the “last straw.”
Will Lydia or any other Pagan ever be invited back to speak at Illini West? Before the controversy, Mr. Hoener told Lydia, “I want you back every year.” Now? Anne-Marie Scott, who has spoken privately with Mr. Hoener, says “I believe, if [Lydia] wants to, she will be able to speak again.” When asked this question, Lydia herself says, “I don’t know but I hope.”