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 preserverance--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 say such books should not be included in the literature curriculum for the San Diego County high school.
Parents’ complaints have prompted the Vista Unified School District’s language arts committee to convene today to address calls for taking off the list of required books “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 school students.
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.