I wrote this and submitted it as a “My View” for the Tallahassee Democrat to coincide with Banned Books Week. It was not accepted by the Democrat, and Banned Books Week ends today so I am out of time to try to convince them otherwise. This piece is the most heart-generated and fussed-over composition I have written in a long time, so I want it to see the light of day. If you see fit to share it, please do. After two previous blog posts and countless other interactions on this topic, this post is my last. That sure doesn’t mean I am not watching, though, to make sure procedures are followed in the future and freedom to read remains exactly that: FREE.
A Curiously Close Call With Censorship
There are times when “never mind” is an appropriate response.
For example: change your mind after asking your son to pass the plate so you can take a second helping at dinner?
However, when it comes to free access to the written word, “never mind” is the wrong response.
At the end of the 2014/15 school year, students at Lincoln High School were informed their summer reading assignment was to be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.
On August 4, the principal sent an email stating that the assignment was being changed from “required” to “optional.” In that email, he said “I understand that the language used in this summer’s selected novel makes this text inappropriate as an assignment for all students…I am lifting the mandatory requirement for this novel.” The email continued, “ this novel will not be used for instruction during the school year.”
In a subsequent conversation with the principal, he told me that parents of incoming freshmen had expressed concerns about the language used in the book. He ultimately decided that the book “set the wrong tone” for an incoming freshman’s first experience with Lincoln High School.
An email which stated, “this novel will not be used for instruction during the school year” felt like a “never mind.”
Over the weeks between August 4 and now, I have struggled to put my finger on exactly why this situation angered me so much. While trying to figure out my own intense reaction, I visited as many articles and blogs about this situation as I could. Countless times, I have responded to people worldwide: “I am a parent of a child at the school in question. To be clear, the book was not banned. The assignment was made optional.”
I want to believe the public statements of my School Board members that this is not “censorship” or “banning.”
Here’s where I have an issue.
If this “never mind” isn’t censorship, what is it?
It falls somewhere between the American Library Association’s “public attack” and “censorship.” A public attack is “a publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.” Censorship is “a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.”
The ALA does not have a “never mind” category.
As Banned Books Week ends, we owe it to our students to be vigilant year-round, not just one week a year, and to stop ourselves when and if we inch close to censorship.
In last week’s post, I shared my thoughts on the decision made by the principal of my son’s high school to revert the schoolwide summer reading assignment from “required” to “optional.” I disagree with this decision.
As the past week has unfolded, and the ripple effects of the decision have expanded internationally, I have seen many reactions, often from people who will never set foot in Leon County, about what this decision means.
Status of the Decision
The decision to reverse the summer reading assignment from “required” to “optional” is apparently going to stand.
Being a “Person to Be Heard”
When I learned there was a meeting of the Leon County School Board scheduled for August 11, I decided to attend. At first, I thought I would just attend and see if the issue came up. As the date approached (and as the public opinions piled up pro and con), I decided I really had to speak about this, if allowed.
I learned that there are two ways to speak before the board. 1) You can arrive at the meeting site prior to the 6:00 meeting time and fill out a PTBH (Persons to be Heard) card and submit it to a staff member or 2) You can call the school board office in advance and provide your information over the phone. I did not learn about the two options until the Monday before the board meeting (because I did not ask earlier…), so I had to go with option #1. I was told I would be allowed to speak for 3 minutes about the matter I stated on my PTBH card.
Although this is not word-for-word what I said, this is the best recreation I can do and does follow the outline I used Tuesday night:
As a parent who has had at least one child in this school system since 2001, I am glad I attended a meeting (and sorry this was my first). I came away from the discussion with a more comprehensive view of the issue from their angle. Specifically, it was informative to hear the comparisons between this situation and issues of appropriateness of human sexuality curriculum (i.e., (and I am paraphrasing here) “as a teacher I may think [name of student] will benefit from the human sexuality curriculum, but if their parent requests to opt them out, I have to comply with that request.”).
I am grateful to the school board for giving me an opportunity to speak.
While I understand issues like this take on a life (and definition) all their own once they blow up, it has been important to me that the discussion be as accurate as possible, in order to focus on solutions.
This book has not been banned from our school system.
The parent who is quoted in most of the newspaper articles appears to have requested an alternate assignment (rather than requesting the principal revert the assignment to “optional” for the entire school).
Although there was back and forth about this assignment’s classification as “instructional materials,” at least one school board member has acknowledged that policy was not followed in response to a parent’s concern about the content of the book.
What Really Matters
First and foremost, what matters to me is: a book with clear literary merit, which ostensibly was chosen by English faculty based on that merit, should not have been the subject of one administrator’s ad-hoc action in the face of the concerns of a vocal minority of approximately 20 parents at a school of around 1800.
Secondly, although I disagree with the choice of the parent who publicly stated:
“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…”
…I fully support her choice to request an alternate assignment. The comments to the articles and blog posts I have read about this incident which attack her personally are the saddest to me. And I know this is how the blog world works. I know I, too, have set myself up for being the subject of personal attacks by being so public about this issue. I know if I choose to walk into the territory of public discourse that I must grow a thick skin and cultivate the good sense not to engage with those who just want to pick a fight for the sake of picking a fight.
As I said when I wrote about Drought Shaming, “distrust among neighbors does not build a caring community.” In this case, I would amend that slightly to “animosity among parents does not nurture a caring school.” For all I know, the very parent in question and I may be responsible for jointly helping our students cope with a tragedy, sell concessions to support a school activity together, or (heh …) reshelve books at the media center together. It does neither of us any good to attack each other and it surely does not present a good role model to our children of civil discourse.
(I am also in full support of the school’s faculty and principal, even though there are times such as this when we will disagree.)
Thirdly, although I feel certain the school district does not propose to “ban” or “remove” this book from our library shelves or digital content, I am uneasy at the whiff of the idea that it could ever happen. I really hope my fellow Leon County parents and literature lovers are with me on this one.
Fourthly, here is why it matters to spend three minutes publicly defending one book. It is important to spend three minutes publicly defending one book because, although I believe what I said above in my third point, the erosion of intellectual freedom does not usually start by a flood, it starts by a trickle.
Erosion can begin by saying “you have to register” if you are Jewish.
Erosion can begin by saying “you have to count the soap bubbles” to vote.
Erosion can begin by saying “because you are a female, you have less right to education than a male does.”
It matters to to put one sandbag in place to make it less likely that freedom to think will wash away.
The Summer Reading assignments for the 2016-17 school year can be found here.
A few months ago, I had to do a Toastmasters project called “Speaking Under Fire.” The objective of the speech was “dispel hostility and convince them that your side has some merit.” Our instructions included, “Select a generally unpopular point of view – perhaps one that you also oppose – in order to assure opposition.” The title of my speech was “My Unvaccinated Child is Just Fine Thank You.” Since I am a Shot at Life champion, this choice was definitely a stark contrast to my true beliefs. I pretended I was a pregnant anti-vaxxer speaking to a room full of pediatricians. It was difficult but the process of being in that woman’s shoes informed my approach. It didn’t change my beliefs, but it forced me to try to understand, on a very personal level, what her fears were and how they influenced her beliefs. The most eye-opening component was the understanding that this woman felt the way she did (and bought into misinformation the way she did) out of love for her child. We all want the best for our children.
Honestly, if I tried to do the same with this incident, I would struggle. I do feel strongly that decision which was made was the wrong one, that this book has particular literary value, and that proper procedures should have been followed at the school level.
Were my three PTBH minutes enough to make a difference? I do not immediately know, but my stubborn ounces begged to be heard …
(To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
– bonaro w. overstreet
(But Wait, You Explained “PTBH” But What is the Reference to the Epicentre?)
For all my frustration at people who don’t live here, who have commented on this issue publicly, lumping all Tallahasseeans together, even the one who lumped us all in as “Silly Americans,” I appreciate author Mark Haddon’s tweet (he did the same for another local parent’s blog).
Hundreds of commenters in an international audience have opinions. All I know from my little spot at the epicentre is precisely where my “stubborn ounces” are going to go: toward making sure the one student I have responsibility for has unfettered access to books which matter.
I observed this in the recent school newsletter (January 2016):
Because the resolution of the picture is slightly poor, here’s the text: “At our recent School Advisory Council Meeting, the committee proposed and approved new school procedures for major readings and attached assignments, with an emphasis on summer reading. These procedures outline the responsibility of the faculty to submit potential texts, accompanying assignments, and an alternative assignment to a Reading Committee. The committee will include a group of stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, parents, and students.The committee’s final recommendation will be submitted to the principal for review each year.It is our goal that these new procedures will honor the intent of reading assignments by our faculty while meeting the expectations of all stakeholders.”
When I read Curious Incident during the PBS Tallahassee Great Read, author Mark Haddon sent this tweet. It’s an important reminder (that both sides — pro censorship and anti censorship — matter to the book discussion).
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.