Boron High School students will not be studying "The Catcher in the Rye" this year because of a recent school board decision to remove the critically acclaimed novel from the school reading list after some parents said its content was unsuitable for teen-agers.
But later this month, students in Shelley Keller-Gage's English class will read "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury's novel about a future in which government has banned individual thinking, television dominates society and firemen burn books.
Keller-Gage said Monday that the presence of "Fahrenheit 451" in her curriculum is not intended as retaliation at the Muroc Joint Unified School District board for banning the study of "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel about the adolescent crisis of Holden Caulfield. The district serves about 3,000 students who live in and around Boron, a desert town in the northeastern Antelope Valley.
"I taught 'Fahrenheit 451' last fall," Keller-Gage said. "I'm not doing it in relation to the school board decision. It is an ironic coincidence, you might say."
In May, a group of parents mounted a campaign against "The Catcher in the Rye" when Keller-Gage was teaching it to freshmen and sophomores, although the book had been taught for several years without incident. Opponents criticized the book's profanity, saying the novel was blasphemous and promoted anti-family values.
Last month, the school board voted 4-1 to remove Salinger's novel from a 70-book reading list for high school students. However, the book remains in both the school and local libraries, where it has gained more readers because of the controversy, school officials said.
The teacher's quiet and passionate defense of "The Catcher in the Rye" has made Keller-Gage, a 35-year-old Boron native, the subject of newspaper and television profiles focusing on a nationwide rise in efforts to ban books in public schools.
"It's a dangerous step," she said of the ban. "It's a few townspeople telling us how to teach our kids. It isn't something I asked for, but it is a cause that I believe in and I do believe there has been an injustice done."
Keller-Gage, who gave students the option of studying alternate books if their parents objected to the Salinger novel, said the board has suppressed a widely taught literary classic. The book is known for the funny, poignant and foul-mouthed narration of Caulfield, a troubled preparatory-school student from New York who has become a quintessential antihero of American literature.
Keller-Gage said the chronicle of Caulfield's adolescent odyssey drew special interest from her teen-age students, including some who shun books regardless of their content.
On the other hand, school board President Jim Summers said he reread the book recently and was not impressed. "I had a hard time staying with it," he said. "I don't know who considers it a literary classic."
And he said the board decision has drawn far less interest from district residents than from outsiders and the media.
'We Restricted It'
"I don't consider this a ban," said Summers, who owns a local service station and spoke highly of Keller-Gage as a teacher. "We restricted it, that's true. But the book is in the library. More kids are going to read it now as a result of all this. . . . And they're going to get a fine education without that book on the reading list."
Summers said he did not think the removal of the book would result in new efforts to exclude books from the curriculum. He said he had no problem with Keller-Gage's comments on the matter or her decision to teach "Fahrenheit 451."
Summers said the action was justified because of complaints from at least 20 parents. Keller-Gage said the parents of about 10 out of approximately 150 English students complained initially, and said opponents of the book declined her request to discuss the book at subsequent parent meetings.
Local resident and religious activist Patty Salazar said she supports the board action because the novel "doesn't belong in a public high school."
"It uses the Lord's name in vain 200 times," she said. "That's enough reason to ban it right there. They say it describes reality. I say let's back up from reality. Let's go backwards. Let's go back to when we didn't have an immoral society."
The novel's profanity and sexual references drew scandalized reactions in the 1950s but the criticism faded as literature and movies of the 1960s and 1970s made it seem tame in comparison, according to The Dictionary of Literary Biography. The dictionary said the novel is considered a prominent work of post-World War II American fiction.
But in recent years, "The Catcher in the Rye" ranks along with works such as Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" among the books most frequently challenged in schools and libraries on religious or moral grounds, according a report last year by PEN, an international writers organization. PEN and other watchdog groups have warned that such censorship is on the rise and represents a threat to constitutional rights.
Salazar and other opponents of the book said they had not and would not read it. Boron High School senior Nathan Cathcart criticized that as a "ridiculous" mentality leading to a "dumb mistake" by the school board.
Cathcart, 17, described himself as an avid reader and a fan of "The Catcher in the Rye," which he studied at the school as a freshman. He pointed out that questions about the book will appear on national exams for the advanced placement English class he is taking.
"Educated people have looked at this book and recognized that it has literary merit," he said. "Other books make reference to Holden Caulfield. . . . The students don't realize the greatness of this issue. It could start as something small and work its way up."
Cathcart said the school board has taken away the rights of children to study the book with assistance from teachers and the rights of parents to decide whether they want their children to study it, since the teacher had given them a choice.
As to the potentially detrimental effect on teen-agers of profanity and sexual references, he said: "At that age, they know the words. In junior high, in fourth and fifth grade they know the words, and they say them to impress each other. When I walk down the hall I hear kids in junior high say more cuss words in a minute than I say in an entire day."
Cathcart and Keller-Gage said they hope the school board might still reconsider its decision, but Summers said there are no plans to do so because there has been little opposition in the community.
While Keller-Gage says she has received support from students, teachers and strangers who have written her letters, she said she has not yet discussed the issue in class. She said she may allude to it when her classes begin studying the themes of censorship and governmental control in "Fahrenheit 451" later this month.
Some elements of the grim future depicted in "Fahrenheit 451" have come true, Keller-Gage said. She cited Bradbury's portrait of "lack of communication in families, devotion to television and disregard for human life." She drew a parallel between the novel's scenes depicting drivers who run down people for sport and the real-life random cruelty of drive-by shootings.
When asked if the success of campaigns against "The Catcher in the Rye" and other books also reflect fulfillment of Bradbury's prophecy, she said: "I hope not. It's possible. The censorship does come out of a desire to protect our youth.
"I just don't feel it is the right way to do that."