When the news came Monday, Toby Price was enjoying a moment of parental pride.
Her production was inspired by a student who uses a wheelchair and wanted to see everyone have a chance at portraying leading characters like Prince Charming — a flipping of the script Price calls “pretty awesome.”
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,” was selling well in Canada. Then another message came through. It was his lawyer.
Price was working as a substitute at Kaleidoscope after being fired in early March from his previous job. He was about to find out whether his appeal to get back his job had been successful.
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 the primary-school set and stocked by such mass retailers as Walmart — had placed him squarely in the national culture war over what books get pulled from classrooms and school libraries.
On March 1, he hosted a virtual reading for second-graders. When the event’s scheduled reader did not show, Price was asked to leap into the breach. He picked out a book from his shelf he thought would be engagingly funny. “I Need a New Butt!” by Dawn McMillan and illustrator Ross Kinnaird was a favorite he had read to students at a previous school.
Price thought his Zoom reading was a hit with the kids. Shortly after, though, the school principal questioned whether his book choice was appropriate. It contained cartoon butts and referred to flatulence. Two days later, the superintendent of the Hinds County School District, Delesicia Martin, dismissed him. Price appealed the termination at school board hearings.
On Monday afternoon, Price looked at his lawyer’s message: a report from the Hinds County School District said the firing was upheld. The report, which Price shared with The Washington Post, read: “Mr. Price’s contract should be terminated due to his incompetence, neglect of duty, and for good cause.” Two board members had voted “yes”; one member had voted “nay”; and the two others 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 pursue an appeal. The next step is Mississippi’s Chancery Courts, and state Supreme Court could come later, Price says. “If that’s where it ends up, that’s where it ends up.”
The fight so far has already been trying on Price and his wife, Leah, who’s a 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. So has the GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $125,000 for the family. He tries to cope and hope with the same sense of warm humor that has characterized him as an educator during seven years in elementary-school classrooms and about 13 years in administration.
Price feels anxiety about supporting his family even as he jokes about becoming “a good trophy husband.” And he knows from challenging experiences. After all, he likes to say, an autism parent never sleeps — they just “worry with their eyes closed.”
He says he’s received employment offers from out of state. But this is home. This is where a neighbor will stop to tell him how much he has meant to their schoolchildren. And this is where he will continue to seek job reinstatement and back pay.
Because Price says there’s something that cannot be taken away from him: his passion as an educator.
Price, 46, is enjoying some rare quiet time last week, speaking from his living room that, since his firing, he has 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 tween sci-fi character Artemis Fowl.
In his home outside Jackson that is “loved-in and lived-in,” the educator is surrounded by books and tchotchkes that reflect his love of education and geek culture. Hanging in the laundry room is a Captain America shield. Even that prompts Price to think about the classroom. When he was a teacher, he says with a smile, “I got 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 issue was “that I wasn’t good at it,” but “luckily my parents gave me stuff I was interested in,” including comic books.
Price pivots in an office chair during a FaceTime call and grabs his reading copy of “I Need a New Butt!” “That’s the one,” he says with a quick lilting drawl — his trimmed beard turning upward with a grin. He calls such silly books “kid candy.”
In McMillan’s story, a boy who believes he’s broken his backside goes in search of a replacement, be it a robot butt or a rocket butt or one plated with armor. “I Need a New Butt!” is “funny and short, and the pictures are hilarious and really eye-catching,” Price says, adding: “Hook them with that stuff. They’ll go after the veggies later on.”
The Hinds County School District disagreed. “First and foremost, the book contains statements and cartoon pictures regarding bodily anatomy, bodily functions and removing clothing to expose private areas of the body in various positions,” it said in a statement released after an appeal hearing. “These statements and pictures are inappropriate for an educator to read and display to second graders, especially without advance notice to the teachers of the students.”
Both the district and Elizabeth Maron, the lawyer who represents it, did not respond to interview requests from The Post. McMillan declined an interview request.
Price says that on March 3, he was stunned when he was called to meet with the superintendent and given the choice to sign a resignation paper or be fired pending appeal.
Leah Price soon heard a ding on her phone. “I looked down and my stomach went to the floor,” she says. Her husband’s text read: “Baby they are terminating me.” She told him to breathe. Then she told him: “Do not sign that paper. If you sign that paper it’s the same thing as admitting you did something wrong. … You read a book to some kids. You did not do anything wrong.”
Price took her advice and walked out. “I started bawling by the time I hit the car,” he says. “I drove down to the Dollar General to get some Zebra Cakes, because what other way to eat your emotions than with a Little Debbie?”
He says he knows of no parents who have complained about his book choice — though some educators told him they’ve pulled books from their classrooms out of extreme caution since his firing.
His friend Tom Angleberger, a kid-lit author (“The Strange Case of Origami Yoda”) who once dedicated a book to the Prices, doesn’t believe the educator did anything wrong, either. He says Price was meeting the second-graders at their level. “You can show them a mainstream, approved-by-everybody book and they’re a little bored with it,” he says. “Maybe they need something funnier, maybe they need something a little bit more rebellious, maybe they need something that’s going to shake things up a little bit. I think he saw the butt book as a way to reach some kids that maybe wouldn’t have gotten excited if he had just said: ‘Okay, we’re going to read a safe book again today.’ ”
PEN America supported Price’s choice. In a letter to the school district, the nonprofit organization that defends free expression wrote that punishing Price “is a threat to the freedom to read, learn, and teach, which should be protected and upheld in schools. Reading and sharing literature, even on silly topics, should be celebrated in public education, not become a cause for punishment.”
In its report, the school board said the book contained “pictures of child and adult nudity and inappropriate actions.”
Yet Joel Dillard, Price’s attorney, says that in “I Need a New Butt!” the illustrated “depictions of a child’s bottom that are most objected to by the district were fanciful, imaginary scenes. There was nothing remotely realistic — that’s what made them funny.”
Angelberger likens the book’s cartoon nudity to that of a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip or a Coppertone ad. He says the humor of the premise is being lost in the district’s interpretation. “Every kid gets this immediately — that it’s ridiculous,” the author says, noting that he’s seen the book displayed in the young readers’ section at family big-box stores. “Kids get it, and it’s the adults who have the struggle. Growing up, some of us forgot butts are funny.”
Wait, you’re serious? You must be joking.
Fired for a book? What are you smoking?
Price read that passage aloud before the school board during an appeal hearing, as part of a poem he called “Mr. Price’s Final Rebuttal” that blended humor with a serious sense of purpose.
He says he has often used laughter to endure personal adversity. He revels in making others smile, even by writing a children’s book like “Tytus,” which is a tale of “kindness, chaos and autism.”
Meanwhile, he and his wife weigh 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 that are doing what they were made to do — I mean absolutely and completely placed on this Earth doing what they were made to do. Toby Price is one of those people,” says Leah, noting how her husband’s playful classroom projects have included scavenger hunts and Star Wars cosplay. “I’ve known it since the day I met him. He was made to be an educator, he was made to work with children, and he was made to be a father. He was put on this planet to share his love of literacy with children.”
Price, meantime, longs for the rhythms and routines of Gary Road Elementary. “I miss Field Day. I miss the Fun Run. We had stuff planned for Star Wars Day. This sucks. I have three kids at home and I had 600 at work.”