`In 1980 New Jersey's politicians considered K-12 sex education while national politics were becoming more conservative; the Garden State was the first to mandate it in the public schools," says Ewing resident and author Stuart Nachbar, whose first novel, "The Sex Ed Chronicles," went on sale yesterday at Barnes & Noble MarketFair. On Friday, March 7, Nachbar speaks at Borders Express in Quakerbridge Mall.
According to a press statement, the novel is a fictional account of a young journalist's fight to save a teacher's career within the emotionally charged arenas of sex education and student free press rights in New Jersey's public schools. Greg Mandell, rookie reporter for the Ocean Republic, reluctantly accepts an assignment to cover the state's public hearings on sex education and the Parents' Alliance for Schools and Teachers (PAST), a statewide opposition group formed to stop sex education. While on assignment Mandell falls for Andi Gilardi, a popular history teacher up for tenure at Mandell's alma mater, Averdell High School. PAST has accused Gilardi of manipulating her students to fight for sex education through their school newspaper and marked her as a "morally unacceptable" teacher whose termination may advance their cause.
Author Nachbar, a Jersey boy, grew up in Matawan (now Aberdeen) Township in Monmouth County, the son of an electrical engineer and a teacher. He earned a bachelor's in political science from Rutgers in 1982, where he was an associate at the Eagleton Institute of Politics during his senior year. He received a master's in urban planning shortly after that and an MBA, also from Rutgers, in 1993. A fulltime writer, Nachbar has been involved in education politics for nearly four decades as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, and software executive with a New York-based Internet company that has served the higher education market for 10 years.
He has launched EducatedQuest.com, a blog that offers and invites commentary on education politics, policy, and technology. He is currently at work on his second novel, "Defending College Heights," based around miliary recruiting, among other higher education issues.
"The Sex Ed Chronicles" was published by iUniverse, a self-publishing company that, according to Nachbar, differs from other vanity presses in that it is partly owned by Barnes & Noble. Select iUniverse books, including "The Sex Ed Chronicles," are awarded the recognition "Publisher's Choice," based on their writing/editorial quality and cover design. These books, unlike most other self-published books, are sold in Barnes & Noble and featured in the publisher's advertising to libraries and readers.
The following Q&A appears on Nachbar's website, www.sexedchronicles.com.
Why did you write "The Sex Ed Chronicles?"
I had always wanted to write a book, and I always loved pursuing "what-if" scenarios in American history. I also have a good understanding of K-12 and higher education because I have done business with schools throughout my working life, as well as a good working knowledge of New Jersey politics.
I wanted to write historical fiction based on events that happened in my adult life, including some I had lived through personally. I graduated from a school system that went through a long and bitter teacher's strike in 1977, my senior year in high school. Three years later parents protested against mandatory sex education and one of the protest leaders, a minister's wife, was elected to the school board. She was the highest vote getter. I also lost my mother to cancer during this time and wanted to experience how our breakfast table political discussions would have continued had she lived through the start of my working life.
I also found some scary parallels between 1980 and today: conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, economic worries at home, rising gas prices, diminished confidence in presidential leadership at home and abroad, and "culture war" debates over intelligent design (known as Creationism back then), gay rights, and sex education.
Why, besides historical reasons, did you choose sex education as the main political issue?
Sex education requires a major investment of time on the parts of parents and educators as well as teachers and money because it's offered in all grades and requires certified teachers who devote an entire school year to the subject. By comparison, intelligent design has affected a single unit of a middle school or high school biology class. Most important, sex education is always reevaluated whenever political winds blow in a new direction.
Can you tell us some of the events that helped form the basis for "The Sex Ed Chronicles?"
In 1980, New Jersey was the first state to mandate sex education in all grades in all public schools. At that time, approximately half the school districts offered some form of sex education and half did not, so there was no standard curriculum or guidelines from the state.
There were public hearings conducted by the state board of education and there were economic as well as moral objections to teaching sex education but the opposition was not well organized. The governor and the New Jersey Catholic Conference supported sex education provided the legislation, called the Family Life Act, require local advisory committees of parents and clergy review of the curriculum. There was also strong support in the education and medical community; curtailing teenage pregnancy was a major impetus for the legislation.
It was ironic that New Jersey was the first state to mandate sex education during a high tide of political change in the nation and state. In 1980 our senior senator and a senior member of Congress, both Democrats, accepted bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks. It was realistic to expect the state to move from Democratic to Republican control. Ronald Reagan won New Jersey by over 400,000 votes in the presidential election. President Carter was unpopular in the state; he not only lost New Jersey in the general election, he also lost the Democratic primary to Edward Kennedy. In 1981 the voters elected a Republican governor, Tom Kean, by only 1,800 votes, but four years later, he was re-elected in a landslide.
What was the major fiction that you brought to the story?
I was curious to learn how a well-organized opposition group could have successfully defeated mandatory sex education, what they had to do right and what they could do wrong.
Such a group would need to be inclusive of all faiths and races; New Jersey has a more diverse population than most states. It would need a charismatic leader, like Ronald Reagan, who had the communications skills and resources to devote full-time to the cause. Lastly, New Jersey is a state where school politics are local. A statewide organization would need representation from locally elected officials, as well as parents, if it were to become as powerful as the state teachers association, so I had my opposition group fund local school board races.
Where did you stand on sex education then, and where do you stand now?
I was in college when the Family Life Education Act passed and our high school did not offer sex education classes when I was there. I was shy and not part of the major social cliques, so I might have felt uncomfortable in a sex-ed class if it was taught by a poor or indifferent teacher.
I learned that sex education is too important a subject to be taught poorly. It's meant to impart lifelong lessons of human relations, familial and personal responsibility, as well as health. I prefer the comprehensive approach to sex education, including medically accurate information about contraceptives, to "abstinence only" instruction.
I don't believe that "abstinence only" programs would have been taken seriously by me or my high school classmates in 1980, and I'm not sure the students at my alma mater would take them more seriously today. I do believe, however, that they might reinforce a message that students are already learning outside of school, for example, from their families or their church. But everyone does not receive the same messages from these outside influences; sometimes K-12 students may be receiving no messages at all.
What qualifies you to write "The Sex Ed Chronicles?"
I have an excellent education in practical politics from Rutgers. I also worked five years for a deputy mayor and helped him represent a city government to C-level executives and government officials, including education policy. I've done community affairs consulting for government agencies and non-profits and have done business with colleges and universities for almost a decade. I also lived through some of the events described in the story, including a teacher's strike where I watched teachers sentenced to jail by a county judge. I've also spent a lot of time in newsrooms and at media events during my working life.
Your main character, the reporter Greg Mandell, is not a typical "hero."
Greg's character was based largely on my attitudes towards life and politics in 1980, had I decided to become a newspaper reporter. While I had my notions of "truth and justice" back then, I was not a social butterfly, nor was I remotely aware of sex education, but I was a wise ass at times. I'm also lucky that, like Greg, I've been married to a wonderful woman for more than 20 years.
You also deal with student free press rights as well as sex education in the book.
Andi Gilardi, my main female character, is a young, untenured teacher, who might have learned about sex education in college in the `70s, during a more liberal period in the history of higher education. It was more credible to have her side with her students - and that made for an interesting conflict.
Do you have other stories in the works?
Yes, I have completed a manuscript for "Defending College Heights," a crime novel based on a veteran political reporter's investigation into the murder of an Army recruiter within a corrupt college town. I've also started work on a story focused on women's high school and college basketball. I want to build on a body of work focused on education politics. There's no shortage of story ideas.
"The Sex Ed Chronicles," a first novel by Ewing resident Stuart Nachbar, now on sale at Barnes & Noble. Nachbar speaks on Friday, March 7, at 11 a.m., at Borders Express, Quakerbridge Mall, Lawrenceville. For more information visit www.sexedchronicles.com or www.EducatedQuest.com. 609-799-8190.
Also, Monday, March 31, 6 p.m., Rutgers Graduate School of Education, New Brunswick, and Tuesday, June 10, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-924-9529.