By Jesse Wood
Feb. 27, 2014. Before a fractured Watauga County Board of Education voted to keep “The House of the Spirits,” a novel dividing the county for nearly six months, in the Watauga High School curriculum, Chris Campbell, an attorney for Watauga County Schools, summed up the decision facing the school board Thursday evening at a special hearing in the Watauga County Courthouse.
“Take a deep breath,” Campbell said. “Whatever you do tonight, you will not make everybody happy.”
Following the vote, Ron Henries, a veteran educator and two-term school board member, found that out firsthand after he sided with two of his fellow board members who were also long-term educators – Board Members Barbara Kinsey and Brenda Reese – to retain the novel in Mary Kent Whitakers 10th grade honors English class.
Henries was considered the swing vote on the board by other board members. He was also one of the last people to leave the courthouse as he spoke with disappointed citizens, but immediately following the vote, a woman confronted and berated Henries.
“You let us down,” she lambasted.
Henries later called his vote the “most difficult” decision he has made on the school board.
“I believe parents should have the right to decide what their children should read. Not me, and they will have the right. If they don’t want their children to read the book, then they can opt out of it,” Henries said after the meeting adjourned. “If enough people opt out of the book, it will go [the way of the dinosaur].”
This was the stance he took during the meeting, explaining why he was going to vote against Chair Dr. Lee Warren and Vice-Chair Delora Hodges, who had earlier made and seconded a failed motion to “partially retain” the book inside the school’s library while also ejecting it from the classroom.
Before the vote, Henries said that while he couldn’t understand why parents would let their children read this book, which includes a variety of vivid sexual content throughout one percent of its text, he noted that parents and students had a multitude of options:
- Read “The House of the Spirits” in class
- Read “Moby Dick” as the alternate outside of the classroom during class time
- Take a lower-level English course
- Take honors English online
Henries mentioned that a “staggering number” of parents contacted him and said that they wanted their children to have the opportunity to read this novel under the instruction of Whitaker, who on Wednesday was announced as a 2014-15 Teacher of the Year in Watauga County Schools for the second time.
“I am going to have to stick with parent choice,” Henries said before the vote.
This was the third and final level of appeal that Chastity Lesesne, the WHS parent challenging the novel, had in her tool belt to extinguish the novel from, in her words, being “required reading” at Watauga High School. For several months, Lesesne has been adamant that she wasn’t trying to “ban” a book. Her message didn’t change Thursday night.
“Our objective tonight is to educate,” Lesesne said. “We are not [appealing] to remove it from the library or optional reading. We are requesting ‘The House of the Spirits’ be removed as required reading – required for equal and in-class discussion, required for equal informed participation, required for the equal opportunity to evidence proficiency to the teacher on the subject matter and required for equal attendance.
She added that it was “discriminatory treatment” for students to be separated from the teacher and the rest of the class because they opted out of “this disturbing book.”
She submitted for the record a petition to the board that included 1,500 signatures of those agreeing to her challenge of “The House of the Spirits.”
Lesesne mentioned that the book contained more than 50 graphic scenes that depict a wide range of sexual activity from prostitution and threesomes to rape and molestation of a six-year-old child.
“What is Watauga High Schools’ standard?” Lesesne said. “75 or 100 times.”
She described the book as pornography that violated policies of Watauga County Schools and Watauga High School. She said it was inappropriate for high school students to read such a book before they are fully developed mentally and that the book should have never “darkened our classrooms.”
In the end, she requested the book be taken out of the classroom and told the school board that this challenge posed a “great” opportunity for the school district to develop a rating system that was similar to those applied to movies and video games.
Whitaker also had 30 minutes to speak before the board.
She began her presentation by stating that 93 percent – or 218 – of her students during the past two years have opted to read the book with the support of approximately 300 to 400 of their parents.
She maintained that students “do not have to read this book” and cited the same aforementioned list that Henries would later do in the meeting. She then urged the board to “do the right thing.”
“We are a high performing high school. We have been doing things right for decades. We have the best teachers in the state. Please keep this book in the honors sophomore curriculum and re-establish an environment of confidence for our teachers that will allow them to continue the amazing job they are doing,” Whitaker said. “I know that we do not want this atmosphere of fear and insecurity to continue.”
As she had during the prior levels of appeal, she noted that the book is recommended by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and is a “valid and reliable” resource for implementing the Common Core state standards.
“Teachers should not have to defend a book that North Carolina recommends,” Whitaker stated.
Whitaker also added that “The House of the Spirits” is recommended by the International Baccalaureate program and taught in similar high schools in 146 countries. She mentioned that Isabel Allende, the author of the novel that follows a Chilean family through the country’s revolution in the 1970s, is the most widely-read Spanish author and has over 50 literary awards and 30 humanitarian awards.
Allende, herself, penned a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education in November, defending her novel and stating that the graphic scenes in the novel were taken out of context.
In the letter, Allende said, “Teachers like to teach [The House of the Spirits] because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues, and customs … Most students choose the book, they enjoy it and often they write to me. Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world.”
Both Lesesne and Whitaker offered quotes from students who read the book under Whitaker’s tutelage. Lesesne said that one such student essentially said, “I don’t remember the themes or Latin American culture, but I do remember the graphic scenes.”
In response, Whitaker offered a student quote that was in support of the novel: “I had the joy of being taught the House of the Spirits by Ms. Whitaker last year. Never once did I feel uncomfortable in class discussing these issues. These issues go on in the real world. This book brings truth into the light.”
Just as Lesesne cited academics and studies to assist her case, so did Whitaker, who mentioned that it was a “valid concern” for parents to question how the graphic content of the novel was covered in class. While she provided her lesson plans and documentation of her “sensitive approach to this material” to the board, she also quoted Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, among other titles.
“It is not content itself that desensitizes, it’s how kids make meaning of the content. However, when young people engage with violent or sexual content in thoughtful and critical ways, the effects can be quite different and quite positive,” Rich said in a statement before noting that “it sounds like [Whitaker] is using this book in” a positive manner.”
Before Whitaker ended her presentation, she quoted Patrick Williamson, a WHS senior who is the student representative on the Watauga County Board of Education: “Do not make Watauga High School students fight for their education!”
After both Lesesne and Whitaker presented before the board and a packed courtroom in the Watauga Count Courthouse, Campbell, the attorney, counseled the five board members on their tough decision.
In his speech, Campbell genuinely lauded both Lesesne and Whitaker for their “incredibly compelling” arguments that were more “eloquent” than any he has heard before from a fellow lawyer.
While noting that this issue had “four different players” – students, school board, parents and administration/faculty – Campbell said that the U.S. Supreme Court has already set a ruling, a precedent that the board members “could not remove a book simply because you don’t like what it says.”
He noted that the waters get “very muddy” after that proposition and that the best interest of the students is what matters.
After Hodges and Warren made and seconded a motion that would remove the book from the classroom and insert it into the library, the board discussed opinions.
Henries was the first school board member to speak about the book. Next was Reese, who said that she read the book twice after the book challenge began in October. She said that after reading the novel, she understood why the book was controversial.
Reese noted both the “terrible things” that occur in the book and the “beauty” that is shown with the theme of forgiveness in the end. While stating that she wouldn’t recommend teenagers read the book at home alone and without guidance from a teacher, she also wouldn’t recommend pulling the book from the classroom.
Hodges, while noting the divisive issue, said that once the book challenge was over that she would like to see a long-term solution that would be agreeable for all students and parents. She said that she views everything “from the lens of what is best for our children” in all of her votes on the school board and that Thursday evening was no different.
“My vote cast is what I feel is best for our students,” Hodges said.
Kinsey noted that this whole affair had grown “tiresome” in the past five months, and that Watauga County had been held in a bad light in the media. In her short speech, she didn’t give an indication of how she would vote.
Warren read from a letter that he received that, he said, summed up his opinion better than his own expression. The letter essentially stated that the book wasn’t appropriate for Watauga High School students because their brains aren’t fully developed. The letter also mentioned that parents should be warned of “both sides” before they sign off on the novel in the future.
“At the very least, parents should be given the opportunity to exercise their rights as parents,” Warren said at the end of his speech.
After the board voted 3-2 to keep the book in the curriculum and deny Lesesne’s challenge of the book, Whitaker was thrilled.
“I am exhilarated and relieved,” Whitaker said.
She added that she was also thrilled for her past, current and future students and thrilled that the “professionalism” of the teachers in the English department at Watauga High School has been “recognized and supported.”
“I am thrilled that the freedom to read and the freedom to learn and the freedom to pursue truth has been upheld,” Whitaker said.
Below are two videos – one featuring Lesesne’s presentation and the other featuring Whitaker’s presentation.
Below is audio from the entire meeting. The first audio segment is an introduction by Chair Dr. Lee Warren that leads into Lesesne’s presentation before the board.
The second audio segment features Whitaker’s presentation, and the final segment is discussion leading into the eventual vote.
For more on the book challenge:
- Feb. 27, 2014: Students Stage ‘The House of the Spirits’ Read-In at WHS on Thursday Morning, Final Appeal Tonight
- Feb. 26, 2014: Location for Book Challenge Changed to Watauga County Courthouse, No Tickets Required
- Feb. 25, 2014: ACLU-NC To Rally With Wataugans Supporting ‘The House of the Spirits’ Before School Board Vote Thursday
- Feb. 21, 2014: Update: Boone Police Investigates Letters Sent To WHS Teachers Regarding ‘The House of the Spirits’ Novel
- Feb. 10, 2014: School Board Hears From 21 Individuals on Both Sides of Pending Book Challenge at Watauga High School
- 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
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