BRADENTON — In the parking lot outside the school board meeting, she pulled a new black blazer over her “I Read Banned Books” T-shirt.
She wanted them to take her seriously.
“I’m nervous,” Heather Felton, 48, told her husband and older child that Tuesday evening in May. She squared her shoulders, pushed up her glasses, her big rainbow earrings dangling.
The high school English teacher had typed her speech days before, sent copies to the governor and Florida Board of Education.
She had rehearsed in her living room in front of her kids. Trimmed her message to the three-minute maximum.
“Let’s do this,” she said, walking into the Manatee County municipal building, through the metal detector, past the armed guards.
During a decade in public school classrooms, Ms. Felton had never felt she needed to address elected officials.
Now, she felt she had no choice.
She had come to unload the weight of the last year. To try to make the decision-makers understand how new rules are causing teachers to question their profession and themselves.
To tell them how students — and her own children — are affected.
She slipped into a back row.
The place was packed.
“Let us pray,” said a minister. He asked God to “uplift those who are most vulnerable, so that all voices shall be heard and respected.” Ms. Felton looked at her family. That’s all she had ever wanted — no great fanfare, maybe just a “thank you for your service.”
And, hopefully, for someone to care.
• • •
She saw the first sign in March 2022.
Florida lawmakers had passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed by opponents Don’t Say Gay, prohibiting educators from instructing young children about sexual orientation or gender identity.
But Ms. Felton’s husband and co-workers told her not to worry. The law applied to kindergarten through third grade, not her students at Southeast High.
Still, she worried about elementary teachers who couldn’t put up pictures of their same-sex spouses. Kids who had two moms.
She knew that censoring starts small — then explodes.
“You watch,” she kept saying. “They’re coming for us next.”
• • •
Books have always been her passion, and escape. Her mom used to catch her late at night, reading with a flashlight under the sheets.
“Even in English class,” she said, “I’d have the book we were studying open on the desk. But I was reading another one in my lap.”
After college, she became a reporter, taking the night cops shift in Bradenton.
She was checking the log one night when she met a young law enforcement officer. The next day, he showed up at the newspaper office.
She and Sean have been married for 24 years.
When their two children were in middle school, Ms. Felton started teaching English, as she’d always dreamed, at their school. When they went to high school, she went with them.
At Southeast High, her older child asked her to sponsor a Rainbow Alliance, and she felt honored to craft a space for LGBTQ+ students.
She had always tried to conform. But her kids — they were completely themselves.
She taught English to juniors, in the regular curriculum and the International Baccalaureate program — about 150 students each year, most minorities, and all eligible for free lunch.
Many didn’t have parents. Others already were parents.
She loved showing them how literature can transform the way they see the world — and themselves. She didn’t mind the long hours, taking papers home to grade, worrying about her kids all weekend.
After school, her classroom was always crowded. Students came for help with homework, for advice, to confide in her.
“I have two children,” she told everyone. “But more than 1,000 kiddos.”
Many called her “Mom.” So did the young teachers she mentored.
“Everyone feels safe with her,” said Melissa Garanton, who taught English across the hall.
On Wednesdays, dozens of Rainbow Alliance members came to watch movies, talk about their feelings and families. They made stickers that said, “Coexist.” Passed out rubber rainbow wristbands.
Every year, at least five students came out to her.
Some wanted to rehearse how to tell their parents. Others wanted to introduce different names or pronouns. Most just wanted someone to accept them.
Then, last summer, Ms. Felton learned that the school board in North Florida’s Leon County approved a controversial policy that some advocates worried could lead to the outing of transgender students. She feared that similar rules would soon extend across the state.
And she knew she could never, would never, make that kind of phone call.
When classes started in August, Ms. Felton told her LGBTQ+ club that they could no longer confide in her. She could be forced to share their secrets.
In October, the Rainbow Alliance dissolved.
Everyone was afraid to come to the meetings.
• • •
All autumn, she watched the dominoes fall.
Across the state, parents and politicians were restricting titles she taught, stories she loved: “The Bluest Eye,” “The Color Purple,” “The House on Mango Street.”
Books about young Black and brown people, texts where her students could see and celebrate themselves. She had more than 900 books in her classroom but no list of what could stay.
“Any school can ban whatever it wants,” she said. “If one person challenges it, it gets pulled and there’s a whole process.”
One thing was clear: Teaching a forbidden book was a third-degree felony.
“No cop is going to want to enforce that,” her husband told her.
But it wasn’t worth risking five years in jail.
Over the last year, conservative leaders have accused teachers of trying to indoctrinate students to a “woke” agenda, cracked down on what they can teach, told them not to instruct on race or gender identity.
So many rules have been added, so many books banned, so many rights eroded, that teachers are quitting at record numbers, said Andrew Spar of the Florida Education Association, which represents more than 150,000 public school educators.
By January, Florida had more than 5,000 vacant teacher positions — the highest ever, Spar said. Local districts said their vacancies have not jumped significantly in the past year. But statewide, Spar said, the gap has grown into a full-blown crisis.
Undermined, distrusted, vilified, droves of teachers have decided they “can no longer be part of the destruction of the education system,” Spar said. “So they have to leave.”
• • •
Over the holiday break, Ms. Felton got a tattoo on her right forearm, a black feather with the words: “Sometimes there is nothing you can do.”
When she went back to school in January, she brought empty boxes and started trying to figure out which novels could get her arrested.
She pulled the graphic novel “Maus,” about a Holocaust survivor. “There’s a cartoon boob!” “The Hate U Give.” “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” “The Kite Runner.”
“Just keep the books,” her students kept saying. “We won’t rat you out.”
“How much protection do we need?” one boy asked.
Another wanted to know, “Why do they want us to be ignorant?”
She had always seen her job as preparing kids for the world, not protecting them from it.
In February, Ms. Felton started wearing T-shirts with rainbows and banned books, a different symbol of dissent every day.
Her students carried boxes of books to her car.
In the back of the classroom, they caught her crying beside the empty shelves.
• • •
She didn’t need any more signs. But they kept coming.
When a Tallahassee teacher showed a photo of Michelangelo’s David, a principal was forced to resign. Miami educators determined that poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” was inappropriate for elementary schoolers. A fifth grade teacher in Hernando County was investigated for showing Disney’s “Strange World.”
Then came the problem with pronouns. Both of Ms. Felton’s children use “they,” and so do some of her students. The Legislature decided to regulate pronouns in classrooms — and told teachers they could be fired for using “a pronoun that does not correspond” to someone’s assigned sex at birth.
Ms. Felton couldn’t hurt her children like that. She had supported her older child when they changed their name to Indigo, and she had understood when they wanted to go to Minneapolis for college, to become a comic book artist. “Florida no longer felt safe,” Indigo, 21, told their mom.
Her younger child, Emma, 18, has extreme anxiety and prefers being at home. But they had gotten into New College and had arranged to have a dorm room — and roommate — in the fall. “They were so excited to go, which was enormous,” Ms. Felton said.
Then the governor fired the college president, appointed a new slate of trustees and proclaimed an end of “wokeness” at the state’s most liberal public school.
“I’m done,” Emma told their mom. “I would not be welcome there.”
Instead of going to college, Emma wants to learn how to train guide dogs.
“The governor’s policies are messing with my whole damn family,” Ms. Felton said. “He’s making us feel like our kids are less worthy of respect.”
Then, in April, Florida broadly expanded its rules against teaching students about gender identity and sexual orientation to include middle and high schoolers — just like Ms. Felton knew would happen.
How can you teach teenagers literature, she agonized, if you can’t talk about race, gender or sexual identity?
How do you convince people who are being silenced that their voices still matter?
How can you manage a classroom when every day you fear getting fired or arrested?
The pay, too, bothered her. She calculated she was making about $24 an hour.
She started gaining weight. Couldn’t sleep. By spring, she was taking antidepressants. Her doctor asked, “Have you considered another profession?”
Her husband saw the sullen look on her face. “She started looking like she’d been beaten,” he said. “Then there were all these bouts of tears.”
One week Ms. Felton had a panic attack in class, and the school nurse had to wheel her to an ambulance. The next week, her blood pressure spiked so high she had to go to urgent care.
She had planned to keep teaching for another five, even 10 years. She loved her principal, colleagues, all the students. “Even the ones who made me crazy.”
But now, she knew she had to leave.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she told her husband. “I just can’t.”
By May, 10 of the 100 teachers at her school had decided not to come back. Ms. Felton downloaded an app, to count down the days.
She waited until exams were over to tell her students. Some bawled. Many understood.
“You should never be forced to be someone you’re not,” Ms. Felton told them. “If you feel strongly enough about something, you should speak up.”
• • •
From the back of the school board meeting, Ms. Felton watched the elected officials tick through the minutes.
They celebrated elementary students who won a science and math competition, recognized five winners of the Congressional Teacher Award.
Ms. Felton clapped as each educator thanked their senator, principal and colleagues. “I feel honored to work at Lakewood Ranch!” one said.
Then those teachers and all of their supporters left. Suddenly the room was down to a dozen people.
“And now, Ms. Heather Felton wants to speak,” a board member announced.
She walked to the microphone, introduced herself, loudly.
“Sorry,” she said, smiling. “I was using my teacher voice.”
She told the board she’s worried so many of her colleagues are quitting. “There is nothing the district can do to keep teachers,” she said. “As fast as you hire new staff, the seasoned ones will walk away. This needs to change.”
She spoke slowly, with perfect diction, looked directly at each of the three men and three women on the dais.
Some blinked. Two stared at their laps.
“It will take true leadership at the state level and a change in the culture of hate and division that has permeated Florida and this country,” she said. She stopped, glanced down at her paper, then back up at the board, as she listed the reasons she couldn’t stay.
“And finally, the attempts to erase LGBTQ …” her voice caught. “The attempts to erase LGBTQ kids and adults — including my own children — from our schools and communities.”
She didn’t ask for questions or comments, like she had planned to.
No one clapped. No one thanked her or even looked at her.
She sighed and slumped into her seat. Quickly, her family convinced her to leave.
In the parking lot, she smiled and stroked Indigo’s cheek. “It’s OK,” she said. “It is.”
Her husband asked if she wanted to celebrate.
But Ms. Felton still had three days left of school. She had to go home and finish grading exams.
• • •
At the end of the meeting, school board member Mary Foreman addressed the few people left.
“The teacher who spoke tonight, she put words to a lot of things going through my head,” Foreman said. “I encourage our legislators to think about some of the consequences of these bills. … I’m hopeful we’ll see the pendulum swing the other way.”
She paused, shook her head. “It breaks my heart,” she said. “To hear a teacher say they gave up.”
Ms. Felton, for the record, said she isn’t giving up.
She wants to take time to read the box of notes her students wrote to her over the years, especially these last hard months. To remind herself why she became a teacher, and that she did make a difference.
She plans to become an advocate, to fight harder for LGBTQ+ rights — for her kids and Florida’s future.
Now that she doesn’t have to watch what she says, she can finally say what she thinks.
She’s going to use her teacher voice.