When 16-year-old Theresa Nichols was assigned to read the book Tell Me That You Love Me. Junie Moon for an 11th-grade literature course at Middletown High School last September, she told her mother she didn't want to read it because it was "raunchy".
Her mother told her to read it anyway because the book, an offbeat story about three handicapped people who live together, was assigned reading, Theresa said.
However, when Theresa complained about being assigned the book Grendel , a retelling of the old English Beowulf legend from the monster's often dour point of view, her mother reacted differently.
"My reaction to Grendel was shock, utter shock," says Betty Nichols.
"Then anger followed -- anger that something as vile as that had been placed in my child's hands."
Nichols acted on her anger, as did another parent in this small, mainly rural Frederick County community. Contending that the two books were vulgar and "negative," they filed complaints with the school system, formed a community group with other parents, and ultimately took their case that the books should be removed from the schools to the county Board of Education.
Last week their protest came to a head, as the board voted 5 to 1 to uphold a decision by Supt. Gordon M. Anderson to permit continued use of the two books in high school literature courses. Anderson's decision required as well that alternate books be available to students who preferred something else.
The protesting parents, who call themselves Concerned Citizens, have refused to accept that decision as defeat. They have vowed to continue their fight against objectionable literature and to "seek support of all who have the courage to stand with us in this matter. . ."
In terms of numbers, the Concerned Citizens group is not large -- it had no more than about 40 members at the height of its protest against Grendel and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon . As has happened with like-minded parents elsewhere in the country in recent years, however, the issue this small group has raised has galvanized much of the local community, stirring emotions over questions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the purposes of education.
For it is not simply a battle over two books. The parents invovled are more concerned about a larger issue, they say: they believe their children are being taught values that violate the parents' religious and moral beliefs.
The villains in this encounter, from the viewpoint of the protesting parents, are "negativism" and "secular humanism." With negativism, they say, their children are developing a negative view of life, bombarded as they are by books that use vulgar language and that emphasize the bad, the ugly, and the depressing. In the case of secular humanism, they say, their children are subtly indoctrinated with antireligious existentialist views that argue that there are no absolute rights and wrongs and that human-kind is alone in the universe, without God, and responsible only to itself.
Grendel and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon exemplify these evils, say the protesting parents. Jean Silvius, one of Concerned Citizens leaders, says the parents found Grendel to be "anti-Christian, antimoral, full of vulgarity," complete with references to "dead-stick gods" and "base descriptive passages" about the monster's sexual appetite and bodily functions. Junie Moon , Silvius says, teaches that "it's all right to do things against society's rules." It extols "shacking up" and presents the view that "if you're a virgin, too bad for you," she says.
Other books in the school system's high school literature curriculum also attack their values, the complaining parents say. They wince at books like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuekoo's Nest , Kurt Vonneguts' Welcome to the Monkey House , J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye , and Thomas Harris's I'm OK -- You're OK .
With books such as these, says Silvius, "The kids are continually being asked to identify with the wrong side of the fence, with the ills of the world, and possibly to decide that ethics are relevant only to the situation. They are being made to feel that horrors await them in the real world.
"We realize there are negative things in the world, but there are many good things, positive things too," she said.
Parents and educators on the other side of the issue, though, say that such an argument takes a simplistic view of literature offered in schools today. Some books may deal with unpleasant aspects of life, they say, but life and literature do not consist only of good things. Simply reading books with negative, untraditional viewpoints does not cause children to adopt negative, unorthodox values, they argue.
As one speaker declared at a public hearing before the school board voted on the two books last week, exposure to a variety of viewpoints will "enable our youngsters to become thinking, compassionate human beings."
Daria Baldovin, the teacher whose use of Grendel and Junie Moon started the present controversy, said she hoped that such books would help students to think critically. She said that the protesting parents have failed to look at the book as a whole or as part of a nine-week modern American literature that presented a diversity of authors and literary approaches.
Junie Moon has some sexually explicit language, she conceded, but, "if you get to the end of it and don't feel optimistic, then you've misread it," she said. And Grendel, she said, is "a beautiful book."
Her course as a whole, she said, included many types of readings, such as Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea , Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun , and poetry by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman.
She says she was "elated and surprised" by the public's response and the board's decision at last week's meeting. The area residents who turned out for that meeting appeared overwhelmingly in support of the superintendent's decision allowing continued use of the books in the schools: Of 39 speakers, only four wanted the books removed.
Despite the fact that many seem opposed to their efforts, the Concerned Citizens say they will fight on.
As Jean Silvius put it. "Our moral beliefs are being challenged in the name of relevancy."