letter not-to the editor

Written and not sent; that’s what a blog is for, right? Still deeply felt. Event is tonight: App folks who read this, I’ll see you there!

– c

I was raised in a conservative religious household, and recall the concern I inherited – absorbed through my skin, like oxygen – about the depravity of some art, literature, movies, and music. I remember how I felt in my deepest heart when reading something that seemed offensive to my values, a wounding that felt like I had betrayed my God and my people by even casting my eyes, let alone my mind, on such stuff. I remember that arguments for the literary, artistic, cultural value of a such a document were unconvincing to me. If anything, they affirmed that I was “in the world, but not of it;” that, as Matthew taught me, “ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” and any rationale that Mammon offered only deepened my resistance and my greater turning toward God.

I remember these powerful experiences of wounding and healing, acceptance and rejection, as I witness our community’s controversy about the teaching of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits to tenth graders at Watauga High. Arguments against the book have turned on the unsuitability of its sexually explicit and violent passages for inclusion in curriculum. Defenses have included appeals to the work’s universally-recognized literary merit (even, in a letter to the county school board, by the author herself), character references of the teacher involved, and insistence that the book is approved for inclusion in the tenth grade curriculum and that an alternate was offered (so, really, why should anyone be upset)?

I am torn up about how this dialogue is unfolding: how closely it follows the narrative of so many controversies about curriculum. It seems initially to be about legality and literary quality, each side trying to educate the other about risks and benefits it apparently cannot conceive. But I am beginning to see that the core issue is actually the authority we give or withhold from the school to speak into deeply-held differences of our society. The Reagan-era school prayer flap was the first time I noticed the conflict. In our times it includes evolution/creationist science curricula, sex ed, political advocacy, The Pledge of Allegiance, Scouts in the cafeteria in the afternoon, and on and on. We are a deeply divided nation on many fronts, and the school is the brightest flashpoint as we work out our own anxieties through the presumably more manageable lives of our children. We don’t know what we want our schools to do for them (us), how uncomfortable we are willing to let school make them (us). So we fume and fret and grumble to those who agree with us about what the world is coming to as the other side drives us into the ditch.

My best response to this tension comes out of what happened to me after I left home. I attended a university with an unfailing commitment to supporting exploration of every controversy, and trusting that that the community, through respectful dialogue, would find its way. I encountered attitudes and values at school that were deeply different than mine, and as a result found my own changing: about culture, politics, gender, sexuality, and ultimately the nature of my faith. Through respectful – though sometimes heated – discussion and argument, and open-hearted listening to those who were not me (i.e., everyone), I came to understand just how different others were than me. And that my own values, however deeply held, simply could not serve as an index of what someone else knew and felt about the world.

This is perhaps the greatest possibility offered by public school, greater than basic skills training, job readiness, even Friday night football: the possibility to allow all who make up this community to see deeply into each other’s otherness – perhaps to realize, at core, that we are exactly the same in our passionate need to have our otherness understood and respected.

That’s why I support the teaching of The House of the Spirits, unequivocally, and the teacher who chooses to teach it. The book is an opportunity to have that kind of discussion, that kind of listening and understanding of each other. But I refuse to support teaching the book by making those who oppose it into cartoons of intransigence and closed-mindedness. (After all, it’s only a matter of time before this controversy makes national news, and the rest of the country remains completely willing to retell that story about who we are in the High Country. Can’t we be better to each other?)  I believe that school is where our students should – must – respectfully encounter, engage with, and come to understand points of view that differ profoundly from their own. And our larger community must be a place where we can do the same with each other. If I presume to have the only clear vision of what is valuable, I am as blind as my worst caricature of those who disagree with me.

I plan to attend the community-wide read-in and teach-in of The House of the Spirits ( 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in Belk Library, Room 114, on ASU’s campus), and I hope you will too. I would be happy to organize another one in the common room of our excellent Public Library. I hope these events will be a chance for all of us to share the book and make our own judgment; share our own experience of reading and encounter of ourselves and each other. May we all go back to school, as we focus the energy this controversy has ignited. Focus it toward hearing, seeing, reading each other fully, perhaps for the first time.

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