Stay away from the wrong books, Yakov, the impure.
There are no wrong books. What's wrong is the fear of them.--"The Fixer" alamud
Like the protector of the New York City streets he was for 20 years, Frank Martin considers himself a guardian of sorts for the youth of this small, blue-collar school district.
So the retired police sergeant led other members of the Island Trees School Board on Long Island in removing Bernard Malamud's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Fixer," about a Jew persecuted in Czarist Russia, and eight other books from the school library in 1975.
The board's action triggered a legal battle that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in the next month or so.
In a news release issued at the time, the board said the books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy." Martin, now president of the board, sees his role simply.
"What we're trying to say is that some children can't absorb this without damage to their psyche," he said in a recent interview at his home here. "And if just one Island Trees student is adversely affected, I would be totally negligent."
The issue to him is local control of the schools. "Island Trees is standing up for the traditional system of education in this country," he said. "If the Supreme Court rules against us, what recourse do the people of Island Trees who don't want these books have?"
To Island Trees' legal opponents the First Amendment is at stake, and they argue that the board was motivated by politics. The books include Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "Slaughterhouse Five," which Martin once described as "blasphemous and anti-Christian," Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape" and Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice."
Both sides agree that the case is crucial to their cause. If the high court buys the school board argument, there will be no basis for federal judicial review in such cases. The final decision on what books are available will be a political one, made by the nation's school boards.
If the opponents prevail, and the court recognizes a First Amendment claim, the courthouse doors will be open to challengers of book banning decisions.
There are few neutral observers in the debate. And while the Island Trees case has captured the national spotlight because of the Supreme Court review, book banning incidents are on the increase all across the country. The American Library Association found that the number of book challenges tripled to nearly 1,000 in 1981, with a growing number of them prompted by conservative groups like the Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum.
ALA's Robert Doyle said the book-banning boom can be attributed, in part, to Ronald Reagan's election. "People felt there was a mandate for change, on the local level, as well as the national, people who felt institutions didn't represent them . . . after the power shift, they no longer felt unrepresented," he said.
In Saint David, Ariz., the school board recently junked the required reading list of works by Hemingway, Conrad, Homer, Poe, Hawthorne and Twain after banning John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" earlier. In Jonesport, Maine, another Steinbeck book, "In Dubious Battle," is being reviewed after complaints by parents about harsh language.
The attacks aren't limited to the right. So far this year, for instance, there have been three reported efforts by black parents--in addition to one at Fairfax County's Mark Twain Intermediate School--to ban Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for perceived racist language.
The 41-year-old Martin said he'd never heard of some of the books until the fall of 1975 when he and two other board members attended a meeting of a conservative upstate group called Parents of New York United (PONY-U), and picked up a list of "objectionable" books that included excerpts.
When he got back to his Nassau County house, around the corner from the Grumman plant and the Dunkin' Donut shop, he read the excerpts. "I thought wow, I doubt these books are in our school, but some of this stuff is pretty strong stuff to be in a school library."
A short time later, he and Richard J. Ahrens, another board member, left a school sports night and asked the janitor to let them into the school library. There they checked the card catalog and found nine of the "objectionable" books. Two more were discovered later.
A review committee recommended that some of the books be returned to the shelves, but couldn't decide on others. The board allowed one book back on the shelves, put one on a restricted reading list and banned the rest.
Some of the banned books, Martin said, seemed to be written "just more or less as an excuse to write obscenities, or the theme was totally inappropriate for the junior and senior high age group." The excerpts from Malamud's "The Fixer," for example, included quotes of prison guards shouting obscenities at the book's hero.
Ahrens told opposing lawyers later that although Malamud's book was sympathetic to the Jews who were persecuted, he thought that some passages might be objectionable to Jews, so it was banned. Martin recalls that he voted to retain "The Fixer" on a restricted reading list.
Steven Pico, an Island Trees student, sued the school board, alleging that some of the books had been targeted because of their political ideas.
The first federal judge to review the case said that while he felt the board's action reflected "a misguided educational philosophy, it does not constitute a sharp and direct infringement of any First Amendment right."
A divided court of appeals panel said the issue should go back for a trial to consider the board's motivations. That set up the Supreme Court arguments. A final decision is expected by July.
At the latest Island Trees school board meeting, several members of the audience said they thought the whole book removal exercise was a waste of time and money. "Kids hear more vulgar words on the school playground than in all those books combined," said Steve Geller, a longtime Island Trees resident.
Harriett Kirkland, who moved to the community 2 1/2 years ago, said: "What are we going to have next, closet children? . . . . Taking a few books off the shelves isn't going to solve the problems of our young people. That depends on the church and the home."
Dorothy C. Massie, who monitors book censoring incidents for the National Education Association, said the the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other conservative leaders recently have begun concerted attacks on some books.
It's comforting for parents to be able to blame the public schools for rebellious children, she said. "Here's the answer. Let's clean up the schools. It's not our fault."
Early last year, Falwell began a campaign against the feminist book, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and a textbook "Life and Health." He sent out a direct mail letter, complete with excerpts and a warning, "Sexually Explicit Materials Enclosed, Do Not Let This Letter Fall into the Hands of Small Children."
The recognized champions of textbook censorship, however, are Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview, Tex. He has been quoted as saying: "Until textbooks are changed, there is no possibility that crime, violence, venereal disease and abortion rates will decrease . . . . Textbooks mold nations because they largely determine how a nation votes, what it becomes and where it goes."
Edward Jenkinson, an Indiana University professor who has written a book about book censors, said his research shows that most "sincerely believe they know what's right for everybody."
He views Schlafly's move from fighting the Equal Rights Amendment to monitoring what is taught in schools as "one of the most frightening movements today."
Onalee McGraw, education consultant to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, scoffs at the dire warnings of Massie and Jenkinson about attacks from the right. "It's ridiculous to say you have a censorship problem just because you have people asking questions," she said.
Frank Martin concedes that his concern about books is part of his generally conservative outlook on life.
He recalls reviewing and rejecting a social studies text that described the late jazz musician Louis Armstrong as a famous black. "Hey, I like Louie Armstrong's music, but dammit, it doesn't belong in a social studies textbook, especially when they're taking space away from the Second World War or American history."
Martin grew up in Brooklyn. His life now includes his wife Ann, a former teacher with a continuing interest in school issues, 14-year-old son Thomas, a dog, a van for camping trips, his first and only house with its 6 percent mortgage, and tomato plants and a large, plastic swimming pool in the backyard.
After 20 years on the police force in New York, including a tour in the Bedford-Stuyvesant slums, Martin retired recently to become a "material damage supervisor" for Nationwide Insurance. He said he has long believed that children have to be protected and that his life as a policeman reinforced that.
He patroled the slums of New York and doesn't believe "Soul on Ice" and Piri Thomas' "Down These Mean Streets," a book about life in the Puerto Rican ghetto that also was banned, "are fairly portraying the average resident of the ghetto. They were designed as novels to sell, to be spectacular and dramatic."
The Martin family has lived in Island Trees for 16 years. Frank and Ann were renting an apartment in Flushing, in Queens, when they decided they could afford a house in the suburbs. "Like every other American dream couple we came out every Sunday until we found a house we liked," he said.
An interest in a local taxpayers' committee led him to a school board meeting, where he found "all kinds of problems," including the new math, a move toward sex education, and a lack of discipline. Martin was elected to the school board in 1974 and made his trip to the PONY-U meeting a year later.
His idea of education is demonstrated, he said, by Island Trees' move seven years ago to put a phonics-based reading system back into the schools. Test scores have climbed ever since, he said.
On books, he said: "Some people believe they have to expose their children to everything. Do we let our children play in traffic to learn how to cross the street? Of course not. We teach them to avoid the streets until they're old enough to cross."
He cites testimony by a child psychiatrist who likened a child's mind to an oak sapling. "When it's young the sapling has to be protected from the winter. A child's mind is the same way. During the formative years, you can't give it too much stimuli."
Trying to protect the children of Island Trees doesn't mean students can't read the banned books, Martin said, because they are available in the public library and bookstores. And he views the board's reelection as proof the community approved of its actions.
Through the whole debate over the books, Frank Martin said, he tried to ask himself, "How would I feel if my son was exposed to this? I tried to transfer this to the community. That's really the main barometer I used."