Gone are the days of constant book challenges, so my more experienced colleagues tell me. In the past, parents would appeal more regularly to the School Board to remove works of literature from the classroom.
The first book challenge committee of which I’ve been a part began earlier this month, assigned to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The work is based on a true story from 1856 in which a slave, Margaret Garner, fled her farm in Kentucky for Ohio, a free state. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed her owner to reclaim her. When her owner arrived in Ohio, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter to prevent her from having to live a life in shackles.
Beloved has been a critical success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and being named the best work of fiction over the preceding 25 years in a 2006 New York Times survey. However, the current appeal to have it removed from the classroom is based upon the work’s portrayals of sexual behavior and murder.
Reading a work of fiction has been a welcome relief to the Capital Improvement Programs, budget books and Student Achievement Goal reports that tend to dominate the free time of School Board members. As I remarked to colleagues, this is the first time I’ve had time to indulge in a work of fiction since I was an undergraduate.
When I was a high school student, I remember my English classmates always reflecting on the fact that it was a rare occasion (Animal Farm is the only one that springs to mind) on which we read books lacking some sort of phallic imagery or involving sex. Society has become much more open to the written expression of these ideas since the days when my father first encountered challenges to The Scarlet Letter as an English teacher in the early 1960s.
Many community members might not even know a process exists by which they can challenge books, which might explain why we receive so few. In addition, students are permitted to read an alternative book if they choose not to read the challenged material, so that likely often allays some concern.
The book challenge process works like this: a parent, employee or Fairfax resident can express concern over a work to a school’s principal, who in turn makes a decision at the local level whether to overrule the decision of her educators to teach the book. If the parent does not like that decision, they can then appeal to an Instructional Services Department Review Committee. If the parent again disagrees, the Superintendent will weigh in. Only after these three initial appeals does the challenge rise to the School Board level, at which point at least four members of the School Board read the challenged material and decide whether to grant the request for appeal. Four members of the School Board must agree in order to grant the request. If the request for appeal fails, the Superintendent’s decision is final. If the Board agrees to review the appeal, the Chairman determines the review process.
The School Board committee determining the fate of Beloved must make its decision by February 4.