At the end of the 2014-15 school year, my son told me that his assigned summer reading was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This book was the summer reading selection for all grades. I ordered it on May 29, and it has been in our home since we received it. I wish my teenager were one of those go-getters who had his summer reading done before the July 4 fireworks, but he doesn’t roll that way.
When “Mandatory” Became “Optional”
On August 4, all families of students received this email from the principal:
My son was jubilant that the mandatory reading had been made optional. I, on the other hand, was not.
Trying to Understand
The day after the email explaining the new status of the summer reading assignment, I sent the principal an email inquiring about the decision. He called me the next morning, August 6 (and I very much appreciate the return call). To paraphrase, he said that upon further reflection, a decision had been made that the book, which contains multiple incidences of the “F-word,” “set the wrong tone, especially for incoming freshmen.” He said approximately 20 parents of incoming freshmen had called or emailed to register their displeasure, and that summer reading should be “fun.” He also said that apparently high schoolers often don’t start their summer reading until the last minute (I guess this was related to the fact that this decision was made once some students started discussing the book with their parents).
In response, I suggested the school could have done a disclaimer at the beginning of the summer and explained from the very beginning “this book has language which some students may find offensive. If they prefer an alternative they can request this through an instructor.”
The Public Discussion
Every Friday, I share what I am reading (paper and audio) on Facebook and Twitter for Friday Reads. This week, I abandoned the audiobook I had been reading (for now) in order to re-read “Incident” and announced that as my Friday Reads selection. It has been so long since I read the book, I felt like I needed to familiarize myself with it again, especially if I am going to be championing it publicly. In that post, I explained that it HAD been a mandatory assignment but had now been made optional.
Today, the Tallahassee Democrat published an article about this issue (read it here).
This Parent’s Opinion
My concerns center mostly around the process surrounding the decision to lift the mandatory requirement for the book. An email from the principal 13 days before school begins, stating “I am lifting the mandatory requirement for this novel” is not the ideal solution. Ideally, back when the decision was initially made about summer reading, the faculty or administration would have familiarized themselves with the book sufficiently to acknowledge that some parents and/or students may be uncomfortable with the language. They could have then developed an alternative book choice with accompanying assignments.
I read in the Tallahassee Democrat article that one parent was alarmed by the “foul language and the religious skepticism. She went on to say “I am not interested in having books banned … But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain – I don’t go for that. As a Christian, and as a female, I was offended. Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment. I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong.” While I respect this parent’s opinion, and the choices she makes on behalf of her student, these factors would not cause me to seek an alternate assignment.
I think it is realistic for a school to consider the frequency of obscenity in a book when making that book its single choice for summer reading for all grades (although I think it is highly likely that the majority of students entering high school are aware that people use this language). From the very beginning, when I started re-reading the book and realized that the first f-words were uttered by a woman who has just discovered that her dog has been murdered and has a garden fork sticking out of its carcass, I thought to myself, “well, I wouldn’t likely say “darn, my dog is dead.” I would be more likely to be overcome with shock and grief and say something relatively out of character. But I will concede there are probably other books that are just as worthy from a literary standpoint which have milder language.
On the issue of religious skepticism, however, the role of literature is to expose us to varying viewpoints. I want my children, who have been raised in a Christian household, to read books about people from all walks of faith, including NO walks of faith.
Since beginning to re-read the book, I have been reminded of its ASSETS in addition to the components which appear to have caused concerns: a reinforcement of prime numbers, explanations of the literary mechanisms of simile and metaphor, and a detailed insight into one person’s experience of the world from the viewpoint of someone with an Aspergers-like condition. These are all things I want my rising junior to learn.
To quote my friend Yolanda, “Literature is meant to make you think.” Thinking is most comprehensively fertilized when seeded with a VARIETY of thoughts, ideas, and viewpoints, not just those with which we concur.
Ultimately, I want my child to be able to analyze literature, learn from it, and discuss it respectfully with those who agree AND those who disagree. As parents, this situation gives us an ideal opportunity to role model HOW to interact with people of diverse opinions. Let’s not blow it.