Literature dealing with hot-button topics such as AIDS and child abuse are okay for classroom use- so long as those works have happy endings, at least according to the administrative board of the Fremont Unified School District in California.
The board has approved other books with sensitive topics in the past, but President Lily Mei explained that “there are characters [in other books] out there that go through rape and abuse that have better endings.”
“Better endings?” Seriously?
The individual examples and anecdotes surrounding sensitive topics rarely, if ever, culminate in a happy ending for all involved. That’s due to something we like to call reality; however, the educated minds at the Fremont Unified School District choose to view the world through rose-colored glasses, and if you attempt to subvert that mindset you risk having your class materials banned.
The National Book Award-nominated Bastard Out of Carolina even has the endorsement of a district textbook committee, but for the fourth year in a row, Washington High School teacher Teri Hu, a 14-year teaching veteran, has seen her AP English list censored by the District administrative board.
Last year, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” which deals with AIDS in the 1980’s, was also rejected in part because, according to Mei, the portrayal of Mormons in the play is “too negative.”
Joseph Hill teaches “Angels in America” at Carlmont High in Belmont- but after school, so that non-AP students may also join the discussion. He called the book one of the five most important plays in American theater because “it teaches us what it means to be a human being in any age.” Allison’s book, he added, belongs to a select group “so inherently powerful and exquisitely written that they’re not just about great ideas, they’re also great art.”
Questions about both works have, and still do, appear on AP English tests, putting students at a disadvantage if they are not able to embrace the material.
Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison, which is semi-autobiographical in nature, was published in 1992. Set in Allison’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina and narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, the primary conflict occurs between Bone and her mother’s husband, Glen, who beats and rapes her; the book is a well-crafted examination of the expectations of gender and of mother-child relationships, as well as conditions regarding class, race, and sexuality as they play out over the course of Bone’s life.
The National Coalition Against Censorship has added its voice to the issue, alongside board members, parents, and students. A letter to the board in support of “Bastard out of Carolina” and “Angels in America” stated, “The task of selecting curricular materials properly belongs to professional educators who are charged with making pedagogically sound decisions…”
The letter went on to give examples of several well-known literary works like 1984, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, and others that would also be banned from reading lists if the same standard were universally applied.
“I didn’t feel it was of substantial educational value,” Mei said of the book; other board members said the book is “too violent or shocking.”
Again, it bears reemphasizing that a semi-autobiographical account of child abuse is expected to be shocking and violent. Abuse isn’t rainbows and walks in the park.
Trustee Ivy Wu agreed that the book is too graphic, even for AP English students. “While students may be academically prepared, emotionally they may not be.”
Some students disagree.
“People are going to have to face stuff like that,” said Kyle O’Hollaren, a 17-year-old senior who is also the student representative to the board. “They should be allowed to read the book.”
Hu believes school board prejudice has repeatedly denied her the chance to teach thought-provoking, outstanding literature; while Board members insist they are protecting vulnerable children and sensibilities.”
The book was adapted into a hugely-successful film for the Showtime network in 1996, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries or a Special, and nominated for several others.
Amid its many accolades, however, it has a history of controversy predating the current situation in Fremont.
In 1997, the theatrical and video releases of the film were banned by Canada’s Maritime Film Classification Board, but granted release after an appeal.
In 1995 it was removed from the Mt. Abram High School English classes in Salem, Maine because of concerns over language and subject matter.
Are parents and high school administrators so naïve that they believe that at some point, perhaps over night when you become an adult at the age of 21, that you miraculously become a self-aware, intellectual master of all?
Education isn’t merely the bland assimilation of facts; it also involves learning analysis and critical thinking, and, yes, social skills.
Students are better served, academically and socially, by reading about topics within the context of rich, honest discussion that occurs in the best of classrooms.
Reading material about uncomfortable and controversial issues alongside skilled teachers can help students understand these subjects and how they impact their own lives.
Colleges pay close attention to AP classes that include challenging material because they expect college-level students to already be able to handle not just those subject matters, but to effectively argue points regarding them.
Out in the real world, long after the memories of college have faded and greyed, your boss isn’t going to allow you to check with mommy if you are asked your opinion in the board room.
The school board is using politics and personal bias to stunt the intellectual growth of the students under their care, and that, more than the affront to freedom, is the real tragedy being played out in our schools.