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Finan: Book is OK for school

July 07, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

After banning a book from use in English courses because of sexual content, the Washington County Board of Education must decide whether juniors may read it with parental permission.

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Director of Curriculum Frank Finan removed John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" from classes in January 1998 after a parent protested the use of the novel in high school.

Finan formed a 12-member committee to study suitability of the book. He now proposes approving its use under certain conditions.

"I'm not trying to create a book controversy," he said Tuesday. Committee members voted 8-3 in November 1998 to recommend the book be approved for use in English classes. Finan did not vote.

The committee recommended allowing 11th-grade certificate of merit students to read the book if parents give written permission. Under the proposal, no teacher will be required to use the book.

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"The beauty of this compromise is it lets the parents decide," Finan said. "Both sides essentially have won."

Since 1968, John Winslow Irving has written nine novels, including "The World According to Garp," which was made into a movie. The 1998 movie, "Simon Burch," is based on "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

The 1989 book tells the story of a misfit child who accidentally kills his friend's mother with a stray baseball. It deals with themes of religion, fate and rebellion.

The novel also has graphic sexual content. The parental permission letter states that Irving's work has been criticized for its use of profanity, vulgarity, sex and religion.

Janet Lashley, a fifth-grade elementary school teacher, said she led the protest against the book in 1997 after she picked it up from a table in her Boonsboro home and started reading.

Her daughter, then a junior at Boonsboro High School, graduated this year. Lashley was a member of the committee that studied the book and she voted against its use. She plans to speak against it at the July 20 School Board meeting.

She did not want to comment on the novel before then. "It's been a long journey and its not over yet," she said.

Nancy Friton, a parent of a North Hagerstown High School student, wasn't familiar with "Meany" before joining the committee. When Finan read her excerpts over the telephone, she was offended.

"I would have said, 'absolutely not,'" Friton said Tuesday. "But after reading the book, I find it to be one of the best books I've ever read."

Friton said the sexual references make sense in context and mature students will be able to handle it. She gave it to her 18-year-old daughter, who called the book outstanding. Reading it is a positive learning experience, according to Friton.

"It's a book that will definitely create thinking and instruction," she said. "I had trouble putting it down."

Finan included on the committee people who opposed and supported the book. He opposed its use, he said. The committee, which began meeting in July 1998, also included principals and teachers.

"We had very candid discussions. There are very sincere and articulate people on both sides," Finan said.

After about five monthly meetings, the committee voted last November to include "Meany" in the curriculum. Acting as curriculum director, Finan vetoed the recommendation.

After the committee added conditions, he agreed to take the recommendation to the School Board.

John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" also is proposed for 11th-grade college preparation courses.

Proposed for 12th-graders are Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Grey" and George Orwell's "1984."

If the School Board gives its approval July 20, the four novels will be added to a list of 100 works approved for use in English classes.

Use of the Steinbeck, Orwell and Wilde works has not been protested and parental permission slips would not be required.

The board's approval does not apply to library books and students may still choose to read whatever they please outside of class, Finan said.

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