By JOHN T. WARD[UPDATE: See a statement from playwright Ariel Dorfman about this controversy appended to the bottom of this article.]
It was a dimly lit and slightly damp night as about 150 members of the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School community politely debated a stormy issue Tuesday: the place of two works of fiction in the curriculum.
Taking turns at a non-working microphone in an auditorium lit by emergency lights because of a power outage, a number of parents challenged the inclusion of two books on reading lists for juniors and seniors because of their adult themes and coarse language.
Led by former Saturday Night Live cast member Siobhan Fallon Hogan, the objectors insisted they were not out to ban or censor the books, but instead to call for a policy that would allow parents to choose substitute reading material they consider “age appropriate” for their children.
The dispute, aired at an R-FH board of education meeting, centers on two titles used in English classes: Argentine-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 drama Death and the Maiden, in which a former political prisoner in an unnamed country considers raping and torturing a man who may have done the same to her as she lay blindfolded in a detention center years before; and Bernard MacLaverty 1983 novel Cal, which features explicit sex amid sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
A petition circulated online called for the district to immediately remove the two books “and any other material that is not age appropriate” from required-reading lists.
It also asked for a policy “whereby parents must sign a permission slip if assigned reading material, films or any media contains profanities, explicit sexual passages or vulgar language,” including descriptions of orgasms “or otherwise overtly excessive language.”
The permission slips would be “similar to the permission slips that are currently used if students are exposed to certain foods in science labs,” according to the petition.
Hogan insisted, however, that she and other objectors “are not looking to ban books.” As a show of good faith, she said she would donate copies of the two books to the school library.
“We are simply requesting that when required reading of this explicit nature is mandatory, that there be another choice for the entire class,” Hogan told the audience. “This would give all students the choice between two pieces of literature. This solution would satisfy this problem.”
Over the course of two hours, more than a dozen parents, students and others took sides on the issue.
In making the case for alternative readings, several parents cited the R-FH student handbook, which prohibits use of school technology “to transmit or receive abusive, threatening, obscene, profane, inflammatory, or disrespectful language.”
Elise Lawless, a Fair Haven mother of two R-FH students, suggested that a student would be in violation of the code of conduct for having passages from either book on his or her cellphone while in school.
“You can’t have a policy that says your child is going to be written up, receive detention, be accused of bullying if they do this — but it’s being taught in the classroom,” Lawless said.
About a dozen students spoke, and appeared united in support of the books. One noted that while the objectors had a petition with 308 signatures, more than 800 had signed a petition to keep the books in the curriculum.
Several young women defended the Dorfman book for sparking healthy conversations about sexual assault, particularly on college campuses.
The objectors “generally just don’t understand how popular culture works nowadays,” said a Rumson girl. “Wouldn’t it be better for your children to learn about these atrocities in an educational environment, rather than learning about them in a popular rap song that will glorify them?”
Michael Humphreys, after reading a note written by his class of 2007 daughter in support of the the two books, threw his own support behind the board of ed for its ability to choose what students are exposed to.
“Public school education is not a la carte,” he said. “We have to trust them with the education of our kids.”
Others, however, said that not all students are at the same level of readiness for blunt language and discussions of atrocities. One man, from Eatontown, said English classes should focus on “uplifting” literature. Another counted the number of time the f-word appears in one of the texts. “There’s 500 years of English literature to choose from” that is free of vulgarity, he said.
Still others expressed a yearning for compromise, arguing that some teens simply are not ready to read about sex, rape and torture.
“I just feel there’s got to be middle ground on this issue,” said Grace Hanlon, a Fair Haven resident who said she holds a master’s degree in psychology. “In our field, when you expose a child who might not be ready for this kind of content, it’s called ‘scandalizing the child.’ And it has a very long and negative impact.
“Nobody is asking to ban books, and nobody is asking to censor books,” Hanlon continued. “But maybe, if parents are alert to the context of these books, they can intervene. That’s all we’re asking for.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship, a First Amendment advocacy group that says on its website that it works “with community members to resolve censorship controversies without the need for litigation,” last week weighed in on the issue last week with a letter to the board. The letter asked that “any decision the Board makes should be based on the books’ pedagogical and literary merit, and not be a simple concession to the views of several parents or members of the community.”
The NCAC also suggested that the board “institute a formal challenge policy. Such policies are widely used by school districts across the nation, and protect the curricular choices of educators against subjective complaints that often aim to impose the beliefs of a small group on the whole community.”
Much of the meeting was held under harsh emergency lighting powered by a generator after grid power to the school went out.
Power also went out last Friday night at the school’s Borden Stadium during the third quarter of the rain-delayed R-FH game against Long Branch. R-FH, which was leading 28-0 at the time, was later declared the winner.[UPDATE: Here’s a statement that playwright Ariel Dorfman sent to R-FH English department supervisor Jack Shea about the controversy at the school. It was shared with redbankgreen with the author’s permission, Shea said.]
Dear Mr. Shea:
Thanks for sharing both the petition and the anti-petition with me, and also for your efforts and those of so many in your area and at your school to insure that students are able to read and interpret in freedom texts that may render some of them – and their parents – uncomfortable.
For someone who has seen his books burnt on television by Chilean military it is disturbing to witness the attempt in the United States to suppress the views of an author who explores the aftermath of what those military and their allies wrought, the way in which they burnt more than books, the way in which they seared the bodies and the minds of anyone who opposed their overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government. One of the central issues in my play is the fear and silence that the protagonist, Paulina, has to deal with after she was imprisoned, raped and tortured. To silence the play in which she appears is to be an accomplice of that fear and to spread that fear to those readers and spectators who are trying to understand victimhood and how to survive it, how to heal both individually and as a society. Something that the United States must face, just as Chileans have.
The government of General Augusto Pinochet deemed many books, many words, many thoughts, to be “inappropriate”. I am saddened by the attempt of some in America to be accomplices, however unwittingly, of that persecution of what they deem “inappropriate”. And I am encouraged and gladdened to see so many comments to the petitions that stand up for freedom from censorship and the opening of young minds, helping the youth of tomorrow to create a world where the Paulinas – and so many others – will not be submitted to violence because of their beliefs. A world where my wife Angelica and I and our children would not be forced into exile or hear from afar news about the death of our friends in concentration camps.
My congratulations. Please send the students who are reading my book, and the novel by Bernard MacLaverty, my sympathy and reassurances that they can do no wrong by reading books that others, in their fear and solitude, would ban.