By a concerned citizen, guest blogging:
Last night at the climactic conclusion of the months-long furor over whether high school Honors English sophomores would be allowed to read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, the Watauga County Board of Education gave 30 minutes each to both the complaining parent, Chastity Lesesne, who started all of this, and the English teacher under attack, Mary Kent Whitaker.
As I listened to the book challenger speak, all I could hear was the implication that she believed her standards for decency should be imposed on everybody. She listed all of the school's regulations about decency -- what books, language, movies, etc. would be acceptable -- and reminded us repeatedly that this book doesn't meet any of those standards. She read a definition of pornography ("material that is intended to cause sexual excitement") but continued to describe parts of the book that create disgust rather than sexual excitement. Time after time, she said the book is pornographic despite the fact that nothing in the book is intended to cause sexual excitement. She read a passage that described a dirty old man's fantasies as he took advantage of a 6-year-old girl, but nothing in that passage could possibly create arousal -- only disgust. Her biggest complaint -- other than "pornography" -- was that teens who selected the alternate were deprived of educational services in the form of classroom discussions. She called this discrimination.
In contrast, the teacher talked at length about how hard educators work to incorporate parental requests, always thinking of ways to improve their efforts to meet the needs of students. She listed several specific steps she has taken to improve her handling of issues brought to her attention by the challenger. The challenger had said that there were many books that could be used, and Ms. Whitaker had asked her to send a list. To date Ms. Whitaker has received no such list from Ms. Lesesne.
Ms. Whitaker said she has tried repeatedly to find a book that would meet criteria set by the state (including Lexile score and focus on Latin American literature), but each book that she had found contained material that would have been found objectionable by some readers. She mentioned the fact that the accrediting association will be visiting the school, and she is concerned about the possibility that a censorship issue could threaten accreditation. She read examples from some of the essays students have written praising the class and the important learning that had taken place. She talked about the positive messages that readers receive and the fact that the passage read by the challenger was only 1% of the book. The book needs to be studied as a whole, not just a few isolated and out-of-context passages. She gave statistics about how many times students have chosen the alternate book, pointing out that this semester -- despite all of the publicity about the book challenge -- only four students have requested the alternate book. Some 93% of the parents gave approval for their teens to read this book. She mentioned the fact that Watauga High School ranks third in NC in test scores, and the two schools that scored higher teach the book. How could our students compete if they are denied access to it?
Sadly, she mentioned the fact that teachers have experienced threats and are uneasy about their jobs. They need to know that the School Board supports them.
What they got from the school board was a split decision, with board member Ron Henries providing the swing vote. Mr. Henries expressed the difficulty he encountered in making his decision to support the use of the book, saying that he personally did not like the book, but he listened carefully to parents who approached him asking that he allow their teens to study the book under the guidance of Ms. Whitaker. Since only four students chose the alternate book this semester, he believed that the 93% should be given their preference, concluding with the idea that in the future, if most parents do not want their teens to study it, the use of the book will die like the dinosaurs.