If you're looking for some inspiration to write a viciously witty Jane Austen-style comedy of manners set in a small Southern milieu, you'd do well to turn your attention to the scandal at the small private school founded by Nicholas Sparks in New Bern, North Carolina.
New York has more details on the lawsuit filed by the former headmaster of Sparks's "Christian-oriented" Epiphany School, which alleges breech of contract while claiming as well that Sparks "feels free, away from public view, to profess and endorse vulgar and discriminatory views about African-Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender ('LGBT') individuals, and individuals of non-Christian faiths," via the Guardian.
From New York's telling, it seems the trouble started because Epiphany was perhaps a little more parochial than Sparks, who seems to fancy himself a broad-minded man of the world, would've liked. Sparks is Catholic (and has donated a lot of money to Notre Dame), but like so many small private Southern schools, Epiphany quickly came to be seen as "a community where a fundamentalist minority spoke with a loud voice," a local Presbyterian minister told New York. Well, no small-minded small-town outfit would do for Nicholas Sparks. He wanted something grander, more international in its outlook and scope.
So he brought in Saul Hillel Benjamin, the man now suing, as headmaster. When Sparks approached Benjamin, he was teaching at the Moroccan university Al Akhawayn, "creating a liberal-arts and cross-cultural interfaith undergraduate program. Doing my usual." Doing his usual. You can probably see where this is going!
At first they hit it off famously, Benjamin says. Sparks threw a bunch of money at him and renamed the school the "Epiphany School of Global Studies." Then Benjamin actually showed up on campus and started proposing things like a nondiscrimination policy and saying one too many nice things about Islam. Attention, passengers, we have encountered some turbulence:
Sparks cautioned Benjamin that he was moving too fast. "You have to first win their hearts," he wrote in emails. "Some [people] perceive … an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted … The [board] will not sanction a club or association for GLBT students," he wrote, confusing the shorthand LGBT, and neither would he. Perhaps Sparks was more socially conservative than he'd let on, perhaps more than he'd realized himself. "As for the club, there obviously can't be one now."
According to Benjamin's account, Sparks maybe looked askance at the holiest of holy-rollers but didn't appreciate the idea that there was something wrong with his school:
Why did Benjamin spend so much time haranguing people about "tolerance, diversity, non-discrimination," instead of mentoring teachers and developing a curriculum? "There was no simmering, hidden problem," Sparks insisted to Benjamin. "It is, and has been since its founding, a kind school, where everyone is kind."
I think this quote from a 2010 interview with CBN, the "Christian Broadcasting Network," is pretty indicative of Sparks's line of thinking:
"Yes, we say we are open," Sparks explained of the school's inclusiveness. "However, we expect everyone here to live their lives in agreement with the greatest of all the commandments, which is 'love God and love your neighbor as yourself.' And it just creates a very inclusive school."
Things grew tenser, and tenser, and tenser, and tenser and finally culminated in this fucked-up scene, claims Benjamin:
He was virtually held hostage by Sparks and two Epiphany board members in a school conference room. In Benjamin's recollection, Sparks was a towering, enraged presence who stalked the room, blocking the door and screaming: "You bastard. You liar."..... At the meeting, Benjamin wrote out a resignation letter on yellow lined paper, which he says was dictated by Ken Gray, a trustee and attorney. (Gray didn't return phone calls.) "It was the most frightening moment of my life," Benjamin told me. "[I was] weeping, broken, humiliated. I'm ashamed that I allowed that to happen."
Nicholas Sparks declined to comment on New York's story, so we eagerly await his responses in court, and also his inevitable novel about a broad-minded (recently divorced) man of the world who finds a good woman to stand beside him in his hour of persecution and need.
The narrator of his latest movie, The Longest Ride, is Jewish.
Image via Getty.