After reading a Times article last week exploring how the book "Ordinary People" is taught in one Orange County classroom, Rene Kogel of Laguna Beach wanted to "commend the teacher for her personal courage in teaching this book." Ditto for Orange resident Sue Guilford, who "would be delighted to have my child in that classroom."
But not Mary Grondie of Anaheim, who said the book "should certainly be thrown in the trash bin." And at Leisure World, Marian Garner said she and several friends "think the teacher ought to be squashed."
The four were among some 150 people who called or faxed The Times' reader response line to comment on "Ordinary People" and the issue of censorship in public schools.
Published in 1976 and later made into a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Judith Guest's novel has been taught in local English classes for more than a decade and has been the subject of political debate in schools around the nation for just as long.
"Ordinary People" tells the tale of teen-ager Conrad Jarrett, who grew up pampered in suburban Chicago, then lost big brother Buck in a boating accident. Depressed, Conrad slits his wrists. He survives, but throughout the book readers wonder whether his family will.
Last fall, some parents asked the Anaheim Union High School District to remove the book from its approved reading list, complaining that it is laced with profanity and its depiction of teen sex, mental illness, family dysfunction and suicide is inappropriate for school-age children. The school board retained the book, and a recall movement against several trustees failed.
But the debate continues, as shown by the large and varied response to The Times' article that focused on English teacher Lucy Swindell and her five sophomore English classes at John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma.
Calls came from virtually every Orange County city, with about 40% of callers opposing the book's inclusion in school curriculum and the rest praising it. Among the callers were parents, grandparents, teachers and professors, a 23-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman. There was a marriage/family counselor and a librarian, a member of the liberal group People for the American Way and several avid churchgoers.
Some described the book as "excellent" while others saw it as "erotic trash."
One woman told of a straight-A student she knew who got his first F at age 17 from a teacher who wrote, "You're not as smart as you think you are" on his paper. The boy hung himself.
"Where was the teacher that listened, inspired and encouraged him to believe that he could accomplish his dreams?" asked Jean Casey of Huntington Beach, an education professor at Cal State Long Beach. "Perhaps he could be the neurosurgeon he dreamed of becoming if he had been in Lucy Swindell's classroom."
Here are excerpts of other readers' comments:
"Instead of teaching literature, Lucy Swindell ends up being a sort of pop psychologist teaching values. What are her qualifications for leading these types of discussions? It all comes down to values. Whose values should be taught in public schools: Judith Guest's, Lucy Swindell's, mine, yours?"
--Sue Sailhamer, Fullerton
"The people who are trying to censor these books in public schools are jerkosauruses."
--Lou Cohan, Cypress
"No child should be forced to grow up in an imperfect society where the imperfections are never acknowledged. Teen-agers do hear, and use, foul language. Teen-agers do get horny and do have sex. And some teen-agers do consider--even attempt--suicide."
--Angela Waterman, Anaheim
"We built this whole country on the fact that we are free and freedom does come from reading books."
--Pat McGraw, Huntington Beach
"I would not want it to be taught to my children."
--Cindy Ball-Kingston, Westminster
"I applaud and commend the rich tradition of censorship in this country, I can think of no better way to generate interest in a book than to have it (banned). When I think of the vast numbers of thrill-seeking young scholars who will, as a result of your front-page story, seek out and read 'Ordinary People,' my faith in the future of mankind is restored."
--Richard Kreis, La Palma
"The fact that she uses this book to titillate and provoke a classroom discussion about family secrets is shameful. Why isn't she teaching Shakespeare or how to write a good paragraph or fill out a job application? All families have problems, but the classroom is not equipped to solve them--kids need to learn how to use the English language properly before they use precious classroom time on problems they are incapable of really solving."
--Wendy Leece, Costa Mesa
"I think that 'Ordinary People' is a disgustingly trashy book, I think it should be banned along with any other books that are vulgar in language and obscene and explicit in subject matter. We are living in perilous times. Jesus Christ is coming soon. A book like this is not giving glory to God."
--Carol McCabe, Anaheim
"I consider myself a very religious person but do not agree with others of my faith who wish to hide from the world."
--Bruce Borden, Tustin
"I don't think that reading a book like 'Ordinary People' is going to lead to teen suicide or teen-agers having sex. I think real life is about that, and this is just a story about real life."
--Lani Anzizino, Seal Beach
"There are other ways to teach what she's after. I think that the same lessons can be learned without using a book that's this controversial. I think she's out of line and I would protest also if my child were reading that book."
--Leslie Ebert, Santa Ana
"Lucy Swindell is doing more than teaching her students life lessons from the book 'Ordinary People.' . . . She is showing us that if we don't start to look at what is really going on in our lives, nothing will really change. She is also showing us that among our high school students, the language, sex, drugs and violence are not the real problems--they are the symptoms of the real problems. She is helping her students see that each of them is an extraordinary person and they are not victims of life as most of them--and us--believe we are. Adding more money and computers and banning a few books will not in the long run improve the quality of our schools and society, but more teachers like Lucy Swindell will."
--David McClelland, Huntington Beach
"There's absolutely nothing valuable for the students coming from this book. It's doing a lot more harm than good."
--Julie Hinrichs, Cypress