Wendy Strang's son came home from Cabin John Middle School with a list of 100 banned or challenged books last month, and eighth-grade English was off to a provocative start.
Teachers at the Potomac school had instructed honors students to look at the list with their parents and choose a book to read. "It is important to know why a book may be challenged," the assignment said.
The challenges had just begun.
At the Strang house, the assignment was welcomed. "You know how standardized the curriculum is these days," says Strang. "This was interesting, creative." They chose "That Was Then, This is Now," S.E. Hinton's 1971 coming-of-age story about friends who take divergent paths.
English teacher Carole Tauber had given the same assignment last year, without objection. But this time, a few parents pronounced themselves shocked by a list that includes such children's standards as Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," as well as titles such as "American Psycho" and "The New Joy of Gay Sex."
But before kids even began to read their books, parents got this note from English teachers and Principal Paulette Smith: "It has come to our attention that an eighth grade outside reading assignment contains material that some families may find controversial. In response to the concerns that have surfaced, the assignment will be replaced."
Wasn't it obvious that reading a controversial book might involve controversy? Smith had approved the assignment before it went home.
So why the about-face? "We did get some feedback," Smith says.
Some? "How many parents does it take to get books pulled?" Strang wonders. Or, as Suzanne Weiss, former president of Cabin John's PTSA, asks, "Why does the first person who comes in to complain outweigh those who want their children challenged?"
"A public school just has to be careful in terms of the types of material used for learning," Smith says. "You really do consider the political climate in these kinds of decisions, but there are also First Amendment issues. We didn't want to hurt anyone."
How many complaints did it take? Smith would only say, "Less than five."
I found two objectors; neither would let me use her name.
"There were titles on there I did not need my daughter exposed to," one mom says. "They were really undermining my role as a parent."
This mom concedes that some books on the list seem benign, such as classics by Mark Twain and Roald Dahl. But the list also contains titles that raised eyebrows even among the most accepting parents: "Sex," by Madonna, and "Heather Has Two Mommies," the subject of innumerable political battles.
"People can cry censorship," this mom says, "but I am going to assert myself as I see fit to protect my child from premature exposure to inappropriate material."
Tauber grants that "it's difficult to raise children in these times, but we need to teach children to think. The children who went ahead and read these books on their own read 'Lord of the Flies,' 'Catcher in the Rye' and 'Beloved.' They're making good decisions and thinking about what offends people and why."
Some educators are too eager to show how edgy they are. And schools are too quick to let the outliers rule, foisting inappropriate topics on children because a few kids are grappling prematurely with sexuality or substance abuse.
But this was a creative assignment, tuned perfectly to eighth-graders' desire to be let in on adult topics, yet tempered by requiring parents to help kids pick the right point of entry.
"I had to tell the children it was out of my hands," says Tauber, who "agreed to disagree with the rationale" for axing the lesson. "We're talking about getting these kids ready to think."
"The parents flunked the assignment," says parent Chris Rigaux. "I don't blame Montgomery County for trying to avoid another court battle, but this was a chance to use books like [Hinton's] 'The Outsiders' to teach about very different lifestyles than we have here in Bethesda, Maryland."
Rigaux's and Strang's sons went ahead and read banned novels and discussed them at home. But Strang is left with a question: "How can I build a resilient child in this world when this is how schools react to pressure?"
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