The failed bid to remove the novel “Beloved” from Fairfax County classrooms this week illustrated perhaps one of the more obscure duties of the school board: literary criticism.
More often than not, the 12-member board finds itself focused on school renovations, boundary changes, and how best to implement gifted education programs. But this week, members found themselves at the center of a debate over academic freedom and a parent’s desire to protect her child from material she believes he may not be ready for.
On Thursday, the board voted 6 to 2 against hearing a challenge brought forward by Laura Murphy. A mother of four, Murphy, 45, had sought to ban the book “Beloved,” saying that the content was too much for teenage readers. She had asked that new policies be adopted to give parents more control over what their children read in classrooms.
But before the board could rule on Murphy’s request, they had to read it.
Each of the eight board members who volunteered to hear Murphy’s request had to read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning account about slavery and a mother haunted by the death of her 2-year-old child she killed to save from a life in bondage.
For some board members, the case provided a rare moment of pleasure reading. For others, the book’s brutal depiction of violence, bestiality and rape proved too much to handle.
Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said parts of the book made her so uncomfortable that she skipped over them.
“I get that this is literature and we need to expose kids to some things but not this as far as incest and bestiality is concerned,” she said. “That graphic, violent, disturbing, sexual material doesn’t have to be in the classroom.”
She voted for the board to review the book challenge.
Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said “Beloved” was the first novel he had read for pleasure since graduating from the University of Virginia in 2008.
“Personally I would never seek to ban a book,” McElveen said. “I trust our educators to use sound judgment for determining what’s appropriate in the classroom.” He voted against hearing the challenge.
Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large) said he voted against reviewing Murphy’s challenge on procedural grounds.
“From my perspective, the question was whether the challenge was important enough for me to have everyone on the school board spend time to read the book, schedule a meeting, have a discussion and then vote,” Moon said. “I said no. We have other things going on” that take precedence.
Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) described Morrison as one of her favorite authors and one capable of turning a powerful story about slavery into lyrical poetry.
Because of the book’s mature themes, Strauss admitted that “this is clearly not a book appropriate for younger students . . . But an AP English course is generally taken by students who are 17 and 18, and I think a book like ‘Beloved’ is appropriate at that level.”
Murphy’s challenge was only the 20th time a book has come before the board for review, according to Fairfax documents. Previously challenged books include Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” No book has ever been removed entirely from the Fairfax school system.
Murphy said she was “disappointed but not surprised by the decision.” She said she plans to take her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education.