Coeur d’Alene School District’s Ad Hoc Committee for Literature is back in the news just months after it tried to remove Of Mice and Men from the district’s required reading list in the spring. Last week, the group of community members voted 4-2 to recommend that Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake be left off the 12th grade reading list.
Teacher Kirsten Pomerantz, who in the spring vigorously defended the use of the Steinbeck novella in her classroom, had requested that The Namesake be added to the district’s list, citing in her rationale the need to include more current works from American authors. Other books currently on the Grade 12 approved reading list for whole group instruction include 1984, Frankenstein, Tale of Two Cities, and The Little Prince. Booklist calls The Namesake, about a young man caught between his roots in Calcutta and his life in America, “triumphant,” and School Library Journal suggests that it “will attract not just teens of other cultures, but also readers struggling with the challenges of growing up and tugging at family ties.”
The volunteers who comprise the ad hoc literature committee agreed that the novel had merit, but that it just wasn’t appropriate for 17- and 18-year-old senior high school students.
According to Chuck Wilkes, a lawyer and pastor and a volunteer member of the committee:
The members of the committee expressed reservations about the explicit language used to describe [the protagonist’s] relationships and the sexual conduct that he engaged in. It wasn’t gratuitous; no one asserted that. It’s not pornographic. It fit the story just fine. The issue is whether the story fit the kids just fine.
There will now be a 30-day review period where the public can comment on the matter. The school board will make a final decision on whether it will accept the committee’s ruling, or reject it and place the novel on the district’s reading list, at its next meeting in December.
There’s something to be said about involving parents in the education of their children. But is this ad hoc committee – full of volunteers who might not even have children in the schools – the right way to go about it? The teachers who are recommending books for the curriculum are doing so based on their educational merit and how they relate to the curriculum. Taking words and passages out of context simply denies the broader message and merit of the works in question.
Let’s be clear – kids aren’t idiots. Especially kids who are on the cusp of adulthood and are using these same words, experiencing these same things, every single day. Let's hope the school board will make clear that they trust their teachers' ability to guide students through difficult and rewarding material.