By Jesse Wood
Nov. 18, 2013. During a joint meeting with the Watauga County Board of Education to discuss long-range budget plans and building needs of the school system on Nov. 14, the Republican members of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners took several minutes at the end of the hour-long meeting to voice their disgust with “The House of Spirits” novel, which before an October parent challenge of the book was being read in a 10th-grade honors English class at Watauga High School.
“The House of the Spirits,” by Isabel Allende, is a fiction novel that follows a family through the Chilean Revolution during the 1970s. In October, Chastity Lesesne objected to two sections of the book: a scene of torture and the other of rape. About two weeks ago, the Watauga County Schools released the committee members who would review the challenge. .
Commissioner David Blust, who has a son taking honors English at the high school next year, said his disagreement with the issue had nothing to do with the Mary Kent Whitaker, the honors sophomore English teacher.
“I hear wonderful things from students about her,” Blust said. “But I want to tell you it’s filth. For 14-year, 15-year and 16-year-olds to be forced to read this, I think is a joke. I want to let you know right now [while] I’ve got your ear … I am shocked.”
Chair Nathan Miller and Commissioner Perry Yates echoed Blust’s opinion.
Yates mentioned that students who prefer to read the alternate book – “Moby Dick” – shouldn’t be “ostracized” outside of the classroom to different location.
“This is America,” Yates said, adding that “as a Christian, as a believer, as a morally decent human being” this book would not be read or taught in his house.
“I don’t think that should be read or taught in Watauga County Schools,” Yates said. “This book is despicable. We can’t stand up and open up with prayer in the morning, but we can read this filth. What the heck guys?”
Supt. David Fonseca objected or “respectfully disagreed” to the wording of students being “forced” to read the novel.
“We can’t use the word being forced and alternative in the same sentence,” Fonseca said.
Blust then clarified what he meant by the wording forced.
“[If] I am a 15-year-old student, I look at this teacher and think highly of her … So I am sitting here and I am thinking, ‘Wow. This teacher is tremendous,’ and so she is giving me this book right here. What in the world?” Blust said. “I think that is being forced into that child’s mind because at that age – you can call a 15 year old a young adult, but with that kind of stuff, I think that is being forced.”
Members of the school board didn’t speak up on this issue at the meeting, but Supt. David Fonseca thanked the commissioners for their concerns and added that the board and the school system has an ongoing review process to follow before a decision is made.
Lesesne brought up her concerns about the novel during the Oct. 14 school board meeting. The Media/Technology Advisory Committee, a group chaired by Craig Wright, assistant principal, and is made up of students, parents and teachers reviewed her concerns Oct. 25 and voted unanimously to keep the book in the curriculum.
Lesesne then filed an appeal. Now a review committee made up of Fonseca; Klay Anderson, mathematics teacher & 2013-14 Teacher of the Year at WHS; Amy Hiatt, media specialist at Hardin Park; Patrick Sukow, principal at Blowing Rock, and Dr. Clint Zimmerman, a community representative is the next to act.
Miller suggested that the school board bypass the review process and “act on this one occasion” because of this “egregious violation.”
“You can make this decision without going through the process. Ultimately, you have the final authority,” Miller said.
Two meetings of the book review committee have been scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 3:00 p.m. If the review committee sees the material fit for the curriculum then Lesesne can file the third and final level of appeal, which would be heard at the next regularly scheduled school board meeting. The action taken by the board will apply to all the schools within the system.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy didn’t chime in on the issue, and Commissioner John Welch was absent due to a prior commitment.
For more background on this issue, see the following stories.