It is a book that has been heralded in literary circles and crowned a memoir for our time. It is a story about childhood suffering that poignantly tells of courage, dignity and perseverance--a cherished text for any teacher who hopes to impart values to pupils.
But passages from the critically acclaimed autobiography that depict in detail the rape of an 8-year-old girl have evoked the anger of parents at Vista High School, who claim such books should not be included in the high school literature curriculum.
Parents’ complaints have prompted the Vista Unified School District’s language arts committee to convene today to address calls for censorship of “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” an autobiography of Maya Angelou, who tells her story about growing up as a black girl in the 1930s.
The book includes the author’s descriptive narrative of how, as an 8-year-old girl, she was molested by her stepfather. Another passage chronicles the stepfather’s rape of the young girl.
Regardless of the book’s literary merit, some parents say its explicit content makes the autobiography inappropriate for high schoolers.
After hearing parents’ concerns, School Board President Marcia Viger also questioned whether the book should be a mandatory reading assignment for ninth-graders.
“I am not a book-burning woman from Vista,” said Viger, who asked the district’s superintendent to suspend further use of the book. “I think it is a beautiful book. But this isn’t a question of whether the book is noteworthy or not. The bottom line here is, should 13 and 14-year-olds be required to read this?”
Viger said she was disturbed at the thought of ninth-graders reading the graphic description of the rape scene.
“Even if there is only a handful of complaints, I think if people are uncomfortable about the subject matter they shouldn’t be required to read this,” Viger said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for all students to be discussing this in the classroom.”
According to Bruce Harter, Vista High School principal, Angelou’s book was selected by the school district’s language arts committee for use in honors-level, ninth-grade English classes. The autobiography has been included on the state Department of Education’s approved reading list since 1985.
He said parents became aware of the book’s explicit content when 93 students were in the midst of the reading assignment. Complaints that the book’s content is inappropriate for the students have led to a temporary ban, prohibiting the autobiography from being used in the district’s other schools.
“Of the 93 students who were reading the book, only six of their parents asked that their children not read the book,” Harter said. “And they were given alternative assignments. It’s only one or possibly two of those parents who feel that nobody should read the book.”
Harter, who described the autobiography as a “wonderful book,” said the students who chose to accept the assignment were not required to read the controversial passages.
“All the students avoided the rape scene,” Harter said. “It was not assigned and it was not discussed in the classroom.”
The language arts committee. a panel of 20 English teachers from the district that determines the reading material for kindergarten to 12th grade, has been asked to dismiss or sustain the suspension of the autobiography.
Assistant Supt. Bill Loftus, who will lead today’s discussion, said the committee will forward its recommendation to the school board, which will make a final decision about the book’s usage in the classroom. Loftus said he does not know whether the book is being used by other districts in the county. In most cases, it is left to individual schools to select books for their students.
“Each school is allowed to choose its own core list, or required reading list,” Loftus said. “Many schools are still forming their list, so it’s hard to say who is officially using this particular piece.”
Some parents, spurred by the classroom controversy, have also advocated that the committee re-evaluate its selection process for high school reading material.
Why Make It Mandatory?’
Viger, the school board president, agreed.
“When there are so many good books to choose from, I don’t understand why this one was chosen,” Viger said. “If there are people uncomfortable with it, why make it mandatory? I have no objection of placing this book on a supplemental reading list and giving students an opportunity to read it, if they wish.”
Supt. Rene Townsend, who praised the committee’s choice of Angelou’s autobiography, said she has no objection to reviewing how a reading curriculum is formed.
“I think we need to be talking about the specifics (of a book) to be sure that it is a good one . . . that we are choosing the best books for the right age,” Townsend said.
Committee members now consult the state-approved reading list first, Townsend said.
“We have a panel of good English teachers who look for books that answer the question, ‘what kind of values do we want to teach our students? . . . what kind of different experiences do we want to expose them to?’ ”
Calling the book “excellent” and “beautifully written,” Townsend defended the committee’s selection of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“In this case, we wanted kids to have an understanding of the black experience,” Townsend said. “Unfortunately, much of it hasn’t been positive. But I think the book was selected because her writing is wonderful.” Angelou, Townsend said, “gets into her feelings about the events of her life. She doesn’t just report what happens to her.
“I thought it was marvelous, but you have to understand I read it as an adult,” she said. “And the question here is at what age is it appropriate for kids to be reading it.”
Townsend said that she understands parents’ apprehension about explicit material but that honors students, already exposed to a wide selection of fine literature, would benefit from books like Angelou’s autobiography.
“If I had a child this age, who was a good student--these students are, and they have read broadly--I would not have an objection to them reading it,” Townsend said. “I think it is an excellent book.”