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Committee Retains ‘The House of the Spirits’ After Hearing Whitaker, Lesesne at Appeal Thursday

The committee comprised of Klay Anderson, David Fonscea, Patrick Sukow, Amy Hiatt and Clint Zimmerman. Photo by Mark S. Kenna

By Mark S. Kenna

Dec. 13, 2013. The second review committee voted 5-0 Thursday to retain “The House of the Spirits” in Watauga County Schools curriculum.

As a part of the ongoing book challenge at Watauga High School, the second review committee, comprised of Supt. David Fonseca, educators and a community member, heard from Chastity Lesesne, the parent appealing the book, and Mary-Kent Whitaker, the WHS teacher who teaches the book in her 10th grade honors English class.

Each participant had 30 minutes to state their case for either retaining the book or removing the book. Lesesne opted for Whitaker to speak first.

During Whitaker’s time, she cited her credentials as a teacher and the process of choosing the book “The House of the Spirits.”

The department chose five books out of 25 in the spring of 2012 because of the new standards implemented for the 2012-2013 school year, Whitaker said.   

Whitaker also defended Moby Dick, the alternative to the book.

Mary-Kent Whitaker explaining how a student can complete their required four hours of English credits before graduating. Photo by Mark S. Kenna

She also explained the exercises based around “The House of the Spirits,” which uses historical examples to help students cope with the unsavory sections of the book, Whitaker added.

Whitaker finished her thirty minutes by reading excerpts from different students who read the book last year.

“I implore you to make the right decision to keep the book,” Whitaker said. “Form an opinion on the work as a whole not the excerpts”

Lesesne spoke next and prefaced her thirty minutes by explaining her respect for the school system, WHS and Whitaker.

She then explained that her argument for removing the book has stretched beyond her original intentions, and expanded into issues like censorship which she does not agree with.

“I represent my son, my husband and my family,” Lesesne added. “There may be other parents who agree with me, but I am not with an organization. It’s just me.”

Lesesne then questioned why Moby Dick was the appropriate alternative to “The House of the Spirits” if it has no relation to Latin-American literature.

Lesesne also brought up her concern about what the book can do to a student who has experienced sexual abuse.

“We don’t know what baggage a student brings into the classroom,” Lesesne added.

She then read four excerpts from the book to illustrate the graphic nature of the book – a section about the rape of a 15-year-old girl, a section about a character talking about losing their virginity to rape, a section about sex with a prostitute and a section about a man molesting a 6-year-old – and mentioned that parents from last year were unaware that their children were reading such content. 

Chastity Lesesne during her 30 minutes to speak with the audience in the background. Photo by Mark S. Kenna

“This process puts us on the offensive side and the defensive side,” Lesesne said. “There has been no place for that. It is not one person’s fault.”

She added that she feels ostracized by the current version of the Board of Education policy.

“There is no place for parents,” Lesesne said. “It’s shut out. What part do we play in this? That’s what concerns me. And I have been very specific about those concerns.  According to this [Board of Education policy] I am not going to be heard.”

After hearing from both Lesesne and Whitaker, the committee spoke citing Board of Education policy.

“The book fits everything,” Partick Sukow, committee member and principal at Blowing Rock, said.  “It fits the criteria in the Board of Education policy.”

Amy Hiatt, media specialist and committee member, agreed with Sukow.

Clint Zimmerman, Ph.D. and community representative on the committee thanked Lesesne for bringing the issue to the attention of the committee.

As a way of doing research Zimmerman emailed Rich Michael, Ph.D. at Harvard University, to ask Michael his professional opinion on the matter.

Michael responded that Whitaker is using the book “in a way that can really do positive things for her students,” Zimmerman read outloud to Lesesne and Whitaker.

However, the issue of regulating a child’s media diet is very prevalent in our society now, Zimmerman said, citing an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Klay Anderson, a mathematics teacher and 2013-2014 Teacher of the Year at WHS, said that the book was a fantastic novel about how one decision can affect an entire person’s life.

Anderson said he would not allow his child to read the book because of the adult nature of the content but said that shouldn’t stop anyone else’s child from reading the book.

“The fact of the matter is public education is about choice,” Anderson said. “The argument is about the book, but the policy has been followed whether we agree with it or not.”

As an alternative to “The House of the Spirits” being taught in the classroom, Sukow asked Whitaker if the book could be used as a summer reading assignment.

However, Whitaker said she would not pick a book like “The House of the Spirits” for a summer reading program because it is a book that needs guidance due to its sensitive subject matter. 

There needs to be more communication with this side of the educational process, Sukow said, adding, that not all kids are mature enough to read a book like “The House of the Spirits” at 15.

Community members who showed up to hear the committee decision Thursday Dec. 12, 2012. Photo by Mark S. Kenna

Hiatt agreed with Sukow adding that reading a book like “The House of the Spirits” is part of advance placement and honors classes.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” Hiatt said.

It is also hard to anticipate what a parent might find objectionable about a book, Whitaker added. 

Before the committee voted, Fonseca noted the similarities between Whitaker and Lesesne.  How both of them did not expect the stress, dilemma and community pressure that would ensue from the challenge.

“The reality is we do have a process and a policy,” Fonseca said. “The reality is that it was a difficult topic and decision.”

WCS spokesman Marshall Ashcraft said it is unknown as of Dec. 13 if Lesesne will appeal the book for the third and final time. The next appeal would be reviewed by the Board of Education.  

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