The following Op-ed was written by Mary Ann Ellis, the English Department Head at Appling High School, in response to the Appling County School Board’s decision to remove three classic texts from the classroom. The Article first appeared in the Baxley News-Banner.
On November 19, 2007, the Appling County School Board set a dangerous precedent by removing books from the classroom. The board betrayed not only me and the English Department, but our students and their parents as well.
Back in June, a local minister challenged two classics—Of Mice and Men and Native Son—which have been taught here for decades; my husband read them back in the sixties. The complaint of profanity spurred heated debate before the school board, which told the minister that board procedure required a formal written complaint.
For three weeks after the formal complaint came, two committees of twenty respected educators read (a key word here) these two books, discussed them, and found them appropriate for high school students. Nonetheless, when the minister returned to the board, its members ignored the recommendation of the committees and voted unanimously to take the books out of the classroom.
Suddenly and insidiously, into the controversy came another book, Brave New World. This classic had been added to the list in a daytime meeting while I and most people were working. A deluge of calls came from parents.
“How did Brave New World get on their list? I want my child to study this book,” the parents said.
“If I give permission, it’ll be fine, right?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll go ask.”
On November 5, I approached the board for clarification and was told I could teach any of the books if I had 100 per cent parental permission. Back at school, my senior college preparatory class, many of which are already eighteen–old enough to fight for this country, to get into R rated movies, etc.–prepared to read Brave New World. They brought me parental permission forms and enthusiasm. Before we actually started reading the book, the ministers struck again, and on November 19, this same board took away the parents’ rights to decide for their children. They summarily dismissed the fact that one hundred per cent of the parents said, “Yes.” The school board said, “No.”
When the discussions first began, the ministers unwaveringly insisted that parents be given more responsibility, more input. Now a mere six months later and on the advice of two ministers who have not read the books and who have no children in school, the board has usurped parental authority
No longer can Appling County college prep students study in the classroom these three classics which appear on national exams such as the Advanced Placement Exam and the SAT. These classics are no longer available to our Honors English students or even to our most advanced students, the AP British Literature Class. Already our students leave home at a disadvantage because so few advanced classes are available to them in this small rural area; the board just saddled them with another handicap.
Granted, the students can still check out the books, but without help, most of them cannot understand the multiple levels of meaning. These books require good teaching to help the students discover their underlying meanings and to prepare them to apply that skill to other books. The students need my expertise, which the board forbade me to give. Ironically enough, I was hired for that very expertise, which has served my students well for the last twenty-three years.
Can I do my job without these books? I’ll certainly do my best. I’ll encourage them to read the banned books, and the very fact that people wanted them banned will engender curiosity. I, of course, will not teach them in class because the board, my official employer, has ordered me not to.
This situation is a bit like farming. A good farmer can grow crops if someone takes away his tractor, but his progress is set back many years when his tools are limited. Can he compete with all the farmers with tractors? In the English Department, we’ve been set back at least fifty years. We’re now working with hoes and shovels.
Our students are the ones who’ve truly been betrayed by the very board responsible for giving them the best education available. Somewhere down the road when the ministers bring three more books and three more and Shakespeare, what will happen then? Our students will leave this county unprepared for Mercer, UGA, Harvard, GSU. Not because of the ministers, mind you. No, they can thank their very own Appling County Board of Education.
Mary Ann Ellis