Supporters praise challenged book
by Kellen Short
"The House of the Spirits" won't be cut from the Watauga High School sophomore honors English curriculum without a fight.
About 100 community members proved that Tuesday at a "teach-in" on the controversial book at Appalachian State University.
The event featured a panel of WHS students, parents, ASU professors and others who spoke about the importance of exposure to challenging literature and raved about Isabel Allende's 1982 work.
It also became a rally of support for Mary Kent Whitaker, the 2010-11 WCS Teacher of the Year who planned to teach the book in her classroom this fall. Whitaker attended the forum but did not speak publicly.
Joseph Bathanti, an ASU professor and N.C. Poet Laureate, hosted the event. He told those gathered that it was important for young people to wrestle with difficult topics like those portrayed in the novel under the guidance of exceptional teachers like Whitaker.
"She is that teacher that students remember, whose impact upon their lives is pervasive and lasting," Bathanti said. "We should build shrines to teachers like her ... not vilify them or call into question their wisdom in the classroom."
Whitaker's selection was challenged in mid-October by Chastity Lesesne, the mother of a WHS sophomore. Lesesne described the novel as "horrific," "graphic" and "immoral" based on its descriptions of sex, rape, violence and death.
Lesesne praised her son's teacher but said she didn't feel the book should be required reading in Watauga County Schools. She also complained that the alternative assignment, "Moby Dick," didn't provide the same quality of education.
Whitaker and others have said the text properly challenges honors students
despite its adult themes, noting that the work is one recommended by the state for 10th graders as
part of the Common Core curriculum.
Others have praised Allende's reputation as an award-winning Chilean author and the book's unique stature in the genre of magical realism.
The debate has elicited strong responses from parents, Republican county commissioners, the Kids' Right to Read Project and even Allende herself, who wrote a letter to the Board of Education last month.
The book is now in the second stage of a review process. An appeal committee will meet at 3 p.m. Dec. 12, schools spokesman Marshall Ashcraft said Wednesday.
While the book's fate is still up in the air, those who spoke Tuesday knew exactly how they would rule if given the chance.
"I'm in full support of this book because of the benefits it gave to my education as a student and as a human being," WHS junior Renee Taylor said. " ... The state of being comfortable does not make our minds grow. It makes our students ignorant."
Fellow junior Kauner Michael said the novel was "graphic in places" but said Whitaker's approach was "respectful and enlightening." She provided extensive background on the political climate of the novel and detailed conversation about the literary elements, he said.
Lynn Schlenker, parent of four at Watauga High and president of the PTO, noted that the decision reached on this book might set a precedent with far-reaching implications.
She also questioned the motives of a recently formed "WHS Parent Awareness Group," which she said aims to challenge other books in the future based on its own religious objective.
She quoted from an email she said circulated from the group that stated that "this is the Lord's battle."
"Sheltering students from the real world is a very, very bad idea," Schlenker said. "Subjecting my children to the decency standards of someone that believes she is fighting the Lord's battle ... to be quite frank, is very scary."
Lesesne, who did not attend Tuesday's teach-in, said in an interview that she did not lead the Parent Awareness Group and could not speak to what its motives were, though she does communicate on its email chain.
She said she certainly asks like-minded, Christian friends to pray about the issue with her but said she does not consider her spiritual beliefs as the driver of this challenge.
"I may be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, whatever, but that's not what's at hand here," she said.
The sophomore honors English class is now reading poems by Pablo Neruda and other Latin American authors instead of "The House of the Spirits," said Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, an ASU professor and parent of a sophomore in the class.
"I didn't request an alternative assignment for my son, but he has one, and will not have the chance that his predecessors have so eloquently expressed," she said.
ASU English professor Craig Fischer, the father of a WHS junior and organizer of the event, said he was pleased with the ideas conveyed at the "teach-in," particularly from well-spoken students.
"I think it was really important to mobilize on the other side," Fischer said. "Here in Boone, I think there is a strong groundswell for keeping 'The House of the Spirits.'"