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School board says Irving novel can be read in class

July 20, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

High school juniors in advanced English courses may study a controversial novel with explicit language if they have permission from their parents this year.

The Washington County Board of Education Tuesday approved John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" for use in 11th-grade certificate of merit classes.

Director of Curriculum Frank Finan removed the book from classes in January 1998 after a parent protested. He formed a committee to study the book and the group recommended its approval with an 8 to 3 vote.

Janet Lashley, the parent who had challenged the book, spoke against it at the School Board's Tuesday meeting. Lashley, an elementary teacher, said most of the committee were opposed to the book from the start.

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"This is not about Janet Lashley versus anybody. This is about the students," she said. "It's not about who likes this book and it's not about whether it's a good story... it's about choosing the best material."

Speaking as a parent, Director of Secondary Education Boyd Michael III also opposed the book. "It is educationally unsuitable and pervasively vulgar," he said.

Michael said young people are confused when adults tell them one thing but do another. Students will wonder why they can't use language that is not allowed in school when they read it in Irving's book, he said.

Michael said "Meany" is not compatible with "Character Education" and lamented the moral decline in America. "For the sake of political correctness, it appears that no one is willing to say that some things are right and some things are wrong," he said.

Parents Karla Goerner and Denise Troxell supported the book. Goerner said she would offer it to her children to read. "Everyone has something that's unfavorable to someone," she said. Troxell said the book's main character embodies "Character Counts."

Williamsport High School teacher Athena Snowden said kids would miss out if they couldn't discuss the book in class. "Our students must be allowed to read contemporary American literature even when it contains offensive language," she said.

School Board member B. Marie Byers abstained from the 5-0 vote. "This book is for mature minds, there is no doubt about that," she said. Byers said she read and enjoyed the book but Irving's description of women bothered her.

"I'm sure that teachers in our county can competently deal with this," said board member Herbert Hardin. He said the book can be brought to a "higher plane of intellectual discussion."

Board member Andrew Humphreys said the School Board should not review each book a parent protests. "I think we should learn to trust the judgment of our staff," he said.

Board Vice President Paul Bailey said the book reminded him of his own childhood. "I just see this as being an excellent opportunity for a creative teacher to have an excellent discussion," he said during the morning meeting.

Troxell reacted emotionally to the board's discussion and thanked them for not nixing the novel. "This book meant everything to my son and my family," she said. "You have restored my faith in bureaucracy ... and democracy."

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