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By Jesse Wood
Feb. 10, 2014. The Watauga County Board of Education listened to community members – including educators, parents and students – comment on “The House of the Spirits,” a novel by Isabel Allende that was taught in sophomore honors English at Watauga High School before it became the subject of a parent book challenge in October.
The school board didn’t make a decision on the matter, electing to schedule the third and final appeal by parent Chastity Lesesne on Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. Unlike Monday’s meeting, which was held in the packed WHS auditorium to accommodate the increased attendance, the hearing on Feb. 27 will be held at the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center.
The school board heard from 21 individuals – 10 people for the book, 10 people against the book and one person, a 2014 candidate for the school board claiming a neutral position. The seating arrangement in the auditorium was just as divided as the personal viewpoints on the matter with those sitting on the right side of the auditorium for the book and those sitting on the left side against the novel.
Hal Lesesne, the husband of Chastity, led off public comment, saying that her wife’s challenge has been “distorted” and “vilified as censorship and an attack on education and educators.”
“It’s neither of these things,” Lesesne stressed.
While adding that the book challenge doesn’t intend to ban the book’s placement in the school’s library or for summer reading, Lesesne said the goal of the challenge is to remove the book from “required reading” in Mary Kent Whitaker’s honors English class and/or implement an “adequate alternative” for those who choose not to read “The House of the Spirits,” which is a novel that follows a family though the Chilean revolution during the ‘70s.
Before the challenge began in fall 2013, the alternative selected was “Moby Dick.”
The second person to speak was Craig Fischer, an associate professor of English at Appalachian State University. He was for the book and was one of the organizers of the “teach-in” held at the college in December – before the second challenge took place.
Fischer noted that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction recommends “The House of the Spirits” novel as an appropriate book on the subject of “World Literature: Latin and Central America” under the Common Core Curriculum for 10th graders.
“Censorship is a slippery slope,” Fischer said, adding that Whitaker’s peers in the local schools and administration, including WCS Supt. David Fonseca, already voted to retain the book during the second level of the appeal in December.
He also mentioned that the book has a positive moral effect when a teacher explains the material and is receptive to the students’ needs. Whitaker, Fischer said, is a responsible teacher who “treats the novel with sensitivity and tact.”
Those individuals speaking out against the book mentioned the “sexually explicit” scenes and “59 depictions of sexual activity,” as one of the individuals put it in arriving to his point that what one reads is photographed “vividly” in one’s mind – especially a younger person’s. He also compared the book to “pornography,” while citing a federal statute.
“We request the board have a full hearing to present overwhelming evidence of the harmful effects,” this person said.
And, along the lines of the same expression, Mike Northern said the school board had a “simple” decision to make because Watauga County Schools had a policy that prohibited the “possession of literature which significantly disrupted the education process or is obscene” and that state statutes grant school board members general control over its public school system.
“Therefore, your decision is simple. Uphold policies and procedures and stay true to your oath and obligation to uphold the law,” Northern said.
Woody McKay, a teacher in the Watauga County Schools system, mentioned – as did Allende herself when writing the Watauga County Board of Education about this challenge – that the graphic nature of the book was taken out of context.
McKay went on to say that if some of the stories in the Bible – which include rape, mutilation, and other “horrible things” – were extracted without reference to authorship, people who lined up to speak against “The House of the Spirits” would likely react to those passages in the same way, as “pornographic or immoral.”
“But it is not what the Bible is about or what it condones or what I got out of reading it. It did not detract from the beauty, the meaning of the text,” McKay said, stressing that he didn’t want to be misrepresented as he held the Bible in a sacred light that he did not hold Allende’s novel.
One parent of two students at WHS, Cliff Baldwin, talked about the vulnerability of the adolescent mind and it not being able to analyze or process information like an adult. He cited the higher insurance rates that companies schedule for teenage drivers and the characteristics of those that the FBI arrests to prove his point.
In addition to the “adults” speaking at the meeting, so did several high school students from both sides of the equation.
Elle Sloboda, a WHS junior, mentioned that while she “highly respected” Whitaker, she felt “disrespected” to have to sit in a hallway for the alternate course load because she found “The House of the Spirits” inappropriate. Sloboda said that when she asked Whitaker why she couldn’t go to the library, Whitaker said, “It would take too long” – to which Whitaker’s jaw dropped upon hearing at Monday’s meeting. Sloboda also questioned how Mary Kent Whitaker could have won teacher of the year in Watauga County Schools in 2010-11, and she went on to say that it was one of the “worst feelings” to feel disrespected by her teacher.
(In previous interviews and presentations, Whitaker has stated that “The House of the Spirits” represented a small percentage of class time throughout an entire semester – 20 minutes of a 90-minute period in four weeks the book is taught and 5 percent of the entire semester.
In an email Tuesday morning, Whitaker wrote: “Last school year six students requested to read Moby-Dick as the alternate to The House of the Spirits. Students were given the choice of staying in the classroom, going to the library, or working outside the classroom. Five students elected to go to the library. One student opted to read and work outside the classroom instead of going to the library. I asked my principal to have a bench brought upstairs so she would not have to sit on the floor. He accommodated my request that day.
I would never require one student to sit in the hall while I give the option of working in the library to the other five students reading the alternate!! That would be wrong and makes no sense.
I care deeply about my students and I treat them with respect.“)
Another student against “The House of the Spirits,” said that she shouldn’t “have to leave my morals at the door in order to sit in a classroom.”
In contrast, Emily Haas, a 2012 graduate of WHS, said her “lens, the way I see life, truly developed and changed in Mrs. Whitaker’s class.” Haas said that Whitaker focuses “on the real and doesn’t always sugar coat” things.
“We read intense novels,” Haas said, novels that address topics that are more prevalent in places outside of Boone – such as murder, rape, violence and bigotry. These acts, of course, have all happened in Boone multiple times.
And another student mentioned she knows several girls who have been raped: “These girls are scared … When students are unable to talk about this issue, they carry a burden and that burden gets heavier when they can’t talk about it.”
“This isn’t a how-to book,” she said. “It discusses the consequences of one man’s actions. Taking this book out of the curriculum would make more people who have been raped more ashamed … Why aren’t we old enough to talk about it?”
Patrick Williamson, the student body president and student representative on the Watauga County Board of Education, chimed in on the topic as well, stressing that he was speaking as individual and not on behalf of the board.
He said he was speaking on behalf of a “very large number of students” that approached him expressing their concerns of keeping the book in the curriculum. WHS student Kauner Michael presented Chair Dr. Lee Warren with a petition of 375 student signatures favoring the inclusion of the book.
“Let the teachers do what they are hired to do and this is to teach,” Williamson said. “It’s a shame to put students in a position to where they have to fight for their education.”
The final person to speak was Tiffany Christian, a candidate for school board in the upcoming election. She was the “neutral” speaker and didn’t offer a personal opinion on the book.
Christian acknowledged the “heartfelt opinions” and mentioned that the obligation of the school board won’t end with the culminating decision to either retain or dispose of the book from the classroom.
She said the focus of much of the commentary revolved around “The House of the Spirits,” the book itself, and not what exactly is the common understanding or common language of what is deemed age appropriate, decent or acceptable.
Down the road there will always be another book or movie that folks will react strongly to, Christian said, so the school board needs to be proactive and come up with a solution that “won’t compromise the values of families and children in the school system.”
To this, Christian received the only noticeable bi-partisan applause of the night.
Check back for more photos and video of the school board meeting.
Read prior articles on the topic:
- Feb. 10, 2014. Tonight’s School Board Meeting Moved To Larger WHS Auditorium, Franklin Graham Joins the Fray
- Jan. 15, 2014. Parent Files Final Appeal for WHS Book Challenge, School Board Expected To Entertain Matter in February
- Dec. 13, 2013: Committee Retains ‘The House of the Spirits’ After Hearing Whitaker, Lesesne at Appeal Thursday
- Dec. 6 2013: Local Book Stores, Libraries See Spike In Demand For ‘The House Of The Spirits’ Since Book Challenge In Oct.
- Dec. 4, 2013: Standing Room Only in Anne Belk Library at ASU for ‘The House of The Spirits’ Teach-In Tuesday Night
- Nov. 27, 2013: Coalition Against Censorship Pens Letter To WCS Book Challenge Review Committee: ‘Retain the Book’
- Nov. 21, 2013: Allende, Author of ‘The House of the Spirits,’ Defends Book, Pens Letter to Watauga School Board, Staff
- Nov. 18, 2013: GOP Commissioners Voice Objections To Watauga School Board Regarding ‘The House of Spirits’ Novel at WHS
- Nov. 8, 2013: Members Selected for Committee To Review Challenge of ‘The House of Spirits’ in Watauga Classroom
- Nov. 6, 2013: Parents Opposed To ‘The House of Spirits’ Speak During School Board Meeting: ‘Not An Issue Of Censorship’
- Nov. 1, 2013: WHS Teachers Defend “The House Of Spirits,” Concerned Parent Moves To File Appeal To Review Committee
Photos by Lonnie Webster of Meeting Below