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Book ban in Rapid City schools could set disturbing precedent

Alexander Spatari

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

Column by Kevin Woster:

High school was difficult for my grandniece Lara.

Books helped. They helped a lot. A couple in particular.

You could say she lost herself in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, except that what she really did was find herself. And find comfort in the words, a way forward in life in a world full of trouble.

“The Sandy Hook shooting was that year and that made me really depressed, that something like that could happen and grownups would do nothing but argue about it,” she says. “Plus high school just kind of sucks in general. So when I read Perks and its scenes about relationship abuse and abortion and sexual assault and suicide and finding friends and that teenage feeling of feeling infinite anyway, I felt seen, I felt like I wasn’t crazy for being hurt and affected by all these bad things happening in the world. And I clung to that story like a lifeline.”

It’s a story that has mattered to a lot of young people. And yet it can be challenging and controversial, which is how, I guess, it ended up as one of five books that were set for destruction by administrators of the Rapid City Area Schools.

Books. Set for destruction. By educators.

Kind of gives you the shivers, doesn’t it?

Why would anyone within a school system talk about destroying books? In this case, it was because a few administrators found some of the content in the books to be objectionable.

The books were initially picked for use in the classroom by teachers at the three Rapid City high schools, in consultation with a district teaching and learning specialist. The books — all of which have won honors or awards — were selected for use in a new English 12 class.

But many never made it to the classroom and some never made it out of their shipping boxes. They were deemed — again, by the administrators, not the teachers who planned to use them — to be inappropriate.

Remember, we’re not talking about middle-schoolers. We’re talking about high-school seniors, some of whom are old enough to vote, some of whom are old enough to go off to war.

Seventy-five copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower were labeled as surplus and scheduled for destruction. The four other books were How Beautiful We Were: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue, 185 copies; Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechel, 35 copies; Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo, 30 copies; and The Circle by Dave Eggers, 30 copies.

But word got out, as it usually does

Once they were labeled as objectionable, the books were included in a much larger collection of other school surplus items scheduled for action by the school district board of education on its consent agenda, or consent calendar. There, with a “yes” vote on the entire agenda, they would have quietly moved on to their fate along with other surplus items, unless one of the board members asked that they be removed from the consent agenda for discussion.

And one did.

That’s because word of the books and their fate got out. Word usually does get out when that word is about an issue that deserves public scrutiny and isn’t scheduled to get it.

Like destroying books, because someone found something in them offensive.

And so the issue became a point of needed discussion during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday evening when the consent calendar came up. It had been an issue before that on social media, with a barrage of comments. Among them were allegations that school board members — some of whom have shown conservative agendas and inclinations to reconfigure the school district and its philosophies into something they prefer — were responsible for the impending book destruction.

Several board members denied that, saying they were unaware of the books and their controversy or their planned destruction. I don’t know most of the members well enough to take them at their word, or not. But that’s what they said.

Board members also said that there is too much going on in the district for them to micromanage everything. That includes what is being done with school equipment or supplies that are no longer needed or not being used. They have to trust administrators for that, they said.

That’s probably true. But however we got where we are, and whoever was involved in the decision making, it’s a vital discussion about a worrisome issue.

The board wisely voted unanimously Tuesday night to remove the books from the consent calendar so the process and policy that led up to them being set for destruction can be examined. They want their legal team involved. They want better explanations from administrators. They want time for more consideration and public input.

In the eye of the beholder

Some of that input started Tuesday evening. The Rapid City Journal reported that more than a dozen people commented, with most opposing the destruction of the books and some contending that the books appeared to be inappropriate for high-school students and in some cases pornographic.

Which is, of course, highly subjective, that pornographic part.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is often quoted and misquoted on that point. In trying to explain what materials he considered to be obscene back in 1964, he offered legal basis but also concluded that “I know it when I see it.”

OK. But people see things differently. People read things differently.

And we as a society see things every day — on our TVs, on the movie screen, on our computers, on our smart phones — that are generally acceptable now but wouldn’t have been at all acceptable to the public at large in 1964. Or 1984. Or maybe even 2004.

I haven’t read the books in question. So I tried to reach out — yes, on social media — to people who have. I got a lot of comments from people I know well, or not so well, or not at all.

And I got a few from my family, including my sister, Mary Woster Haug, who taught high school English for a few years before settling into a long career teaching English at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

I’m biased, of course, Mary Alice (in the family we use her middle name) was a wonderful teacher who truly cared about her students and their well being, both at the high school and college levels.

My sister pointed out first that David Eggers, author of The Circle, which explores a future world of big-tech control over society, has been a finalist for The Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award.

“I’ve read a couple of his books. He’s a fine writer,” she says. “He’s also a humanitarian. He founded a non-profit book series that uses oral histories to illuminate human rights crises as well as founding Scholar Match, a non-profit that connects young people to resources that help them go to college.

“He won the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education and the Dayton Literary Peace Price. It seems to me he’s an ideal author for the 12th grade to study.”

Mary Alice also noted that, in her experience, teachers have “always made accommodations for parents who object to their children reading a certain book. Banning books takes away other children’s right to read books chosen by teachers who have examined the reading materials carefully before choosing the texts.”

Award-winning author steps up in defense of books

The planned book ban has gotten the attention of The Circle author David Eggers. As reported in today’s Rapid City Journal, Eggers has offered to send copies of any of the five banned books to any Rapid City high school senior who requests them. Eggers called the destruction of books by a school board “an unconscionable horror, and the freethinking young people of South Dakota shouldn’t be subjected to it.”

My brother, Terry, Lara’s grandfather and a retired newsman who covered 40 sessions of the South Dakota Legislature, has always been a big reader. Now living with his wife, Nancy, in Chamberlain, where he can enjoy a good book against the backdrop — or frontdrop, I guess — of the Missouri River outside his front door, Terry is puzzled by the fuss over the books.

“Wallflower is the only one (of the five books) I’ve read,” he wrote on my Facebook page. “Can’t see it being a bad thing for high-school readers. Never understood why some people think they need to protect everyone’s kids from ideas.”

Ideas are what we’re talking about here - ideas shaped in stories around characters that, when things go right, come to life on the page.

I know they came to life for my 25-year-old grandniece Lara Widman, in life-altering, life-bettering ways.

“I needed a lot of different stories to grasp at when I felt like an unseen and unheard wallflower myself in an incredibly cruel world that the adults treated as normal and unchangeable,” she said.

Along with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lara also has read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel that is challenging to absorb and could be disturbing to some but very meaningful to others.

“I read Fun Home in college when the Broadway musical came out. I’d recently come out, too,” Lara says. “It’s not a fun graphic comic. The dad’s a complicated character. But it led me to more of Bechdel’s work, and that was important to connect me to a queer history that’s meant everything to me. I can never overstate the power of community in helping people who feel different and unwanted to survive.”

Banning the five books up for destruction in Rapid City is a “malicious harm” that administrators are doing to their own school kids, Lara believes.

“If you don’t like a book, don’t read it,” she says. “But don’t keep it from someone who needs it.”

And further, she said: “Part of these books are uncomfortable. But that’s life. And by the time kids are reading these books, they already know that,” Lara says. “I only found relief and understanding from books that reflected my experience. It makes me sad to think Rapid City kids are losing the possibility to read these books and feel the same.”

I have to say, it makes me sad, too.

It also makes me more than a little worried. If these books are banned, what comes next?

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.