By Mark S. Kenna
Dec. 4, 2013. More than 125 parents, community members and students attended “The House of The Spirits” teach-in, hosted by N.C. Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti at Appalachian State’s Anne Belk Library, Tuesday evening.
The event’s purpose was to explore the literary value of the book, which is currently being challenged by a parent of a Watauga High School student, and to look into the importance of book freedom. Speakers included Watauga High School students who read “The House of The Spirits” in Mary-Kent Whitaker’s sophomore English class last year and the parents of some students who are also ASU professors.
The speakers assembled last night were in favor of the book. After Bathanti read a letter explaining the merit of Whitaker and the book and the guest speakers spoke, the microphone was turned over to anyone wanting to voice their opinion. Opposing viewpoints were allowed, but no one spoke against the book on Tuesday night.
Each of the speakers cited Isabel Allende’s accolades as well as how the book affected them – except for one speaker.
“Two emails written by a parent challenging the book ended up in my inbox,” Lynn Schlenker, vice president of the WHS parent teacher organization, said.
The emails were only meant to be shared only with parents in the county who are in favor of the book challenge, Schlenker added.
However, it was not the organizing of those in the community that prompted Schlenker to speak last night.
The first email was sent from the Watauga High School Parent Awareness Group (WHS PAG), a group started by Lesesne. On Oct. 10, five days before the original appeal, the email outlines steps for “like-minded individuals,” to further the cause, Schlenker said.
“Step four out of step six said and I quote, ‘This is an issue of parental authority and rights not a specific religious or political issue,’” Schlenker said, adding that she was comfortable with assertion until she read an Oct. 26 email from Lesesne.
On Oct. 26, Schlenker received another email from Lesesne explaining the purpose of attempting to challenge the book.
“This is the Lord’s battle will you please put on your armor and stand with me for our kids? Please ask anyone you know to contact the school board as well,” Schlenker quoted from the email. “May we flood them with the love and power of Jesus as his mighty army rises up to make a stand for the souls of the kids in our county.”
Schlenker has no problem with an individual or group being motivated by religious beliefs, but Schlenker said, “I think using the name Watauga High School Parent Awareness Group is a little misleading.”
The group objective is of religious intent and has nothing to do with judging the literary value of the book, Schlenker added.
“This is not any broad religious belief as a whole. It is a very selective group of individuals,” Schlenker said. “Everyone is a part of a diverse community. We want to celebrate that diversity and this group is a part of our community.”
In response to the comments made by those against the book, one speaker, WHS junior Nate Fischer expressed his frustration about the challenge.
“Of all the various points that I read on the news websites, I think the one that shocked me the most was they claimed that “The House of the Spirits” was pornography,” Nate said. “The book is not designed to be titillating. These scenes of sexual violence, of abortions or of things that could be considered pornography are not pornography. Students take away that these acts are profound wrongs.”
WHS students have done well on the SAT and ACT especially in the reading and writing section, Nate added.
“Our performance is indicative of something,” Nate said. “Our local education system turns out excellent students.”
Another speaker related to the still-existing nature of the topics that “The House of the Spirits” covers.
“[Isabel Allende’s] path to hope isn’t simple,” Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, an ASU professor in the department of languages, said. “It is difficult. It is thought provoking, and as we have heard tonight, if we look at the daily news it remains unfortunately relevant.”
The teach-in was organized by Craig Fischer, ASU english professor and parent of a WHS student, after his son approached him about the book challenge.
In attendance for the event was Whitaker and John Welch, a Watauga County Board of Commissioner. Welch is currently reading the book.
For more background on this issue, see the following stories.