Let’s take a brief break from talking about movies. This has been in the news lately and it really struck a chord for me for several reasons.
On Monday, July 25, the Republic (MO) school board voted to remove two books from the high school library. The first book, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, is a young adult novel about a teenage girl having a summer fling in an attempt to get over her boyfriend who died the previous year. The second book was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. If you need me to explain the premise of that novel, you need to stop reading this blog and get your ass to a bookstore pronto. Not only was Slaughterhouse Five in the library, it was also being used as part of the curriculum for an advanced English class at the school.
At this point, I ask you, dear reader, to take a moment and check out the article about the removal of the two books from the library. This link will take you to the Springfield (MO) News-Leader website. Okay, done reading? Good.
I need to make some disclosures before I dive into this situation. I grew up in Southern Missouri only seventy miles from Republic. For ten years after high school, I lived in Springfield, MO, a mere eight miles from Republic. My nephew graduated from Republic high school. I am very familiar with the attitudes and cultural state of the area, and while it’s far from the most progressive region in the nation, it’s also not the most closed-minded. At least, it wasn’t when I lived there.
But apparently things are changing.
If you read the News-Leader article, you understand this mess started with a complaint issued by a Republic resident (and business professor at nearby Missouri State University) named Wesley Scroggins. You can read an editorial he wrote last September 17 for the News-Leader here.
I feel the need to highlight two passages from Mr. Scroggins’s editorial.
The first passage:
In English, children are also required to read a book called “Slaughterhouse Five.” This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The “f word” is plastered on almost every other page.
I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five twice and while I will admit that there is a healthy amount of profanity in the novel, it’s hardly enough to make a sailor blush (which makes me wonder just how many sailors Mr. Scroggins has met). As for his assertion that “the f word” (or “fuck”, as reasonably functional adults like to call it) “is plastered on almost every other page”, well, this is just more ammunition for my argument that the favorite tool of nutjobs is hyperbole.
The second passage:
I confronted the school board with these issues at the June school board meeting. As far as I know, nothing has been done to address these issues to date. This is unacceptable, considering that most of the school board members and administrators claim to be Christian. How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality? Parents, it is time you get involved!
And here’s where Mr. Wesley Scroggins of Republic, MO gets on my nerves. When it comes to any taxpayer funded institution, I don’t ever want to hear any religious arguments (and before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, I mean any religion–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, I don’t care what you believe in) about what is proper. You see, we are supposed to have a little thing in this country granting the people separation of Church and State. Of course, this belief is not shared by people like Mr. Scroggins who seek to force their beliefs and set of morals on others.
But in the end, the blame for these books being removed actually belongs to the Republic school board and school superintendent Vern Minor. Mr. Minor, in particular, sticks his foot in his mouth in the News-Leader article. First he makes this claim:
We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness.
A few paragraphs later in the article is this passage:
Minor said feedback for “Twenty Boy Summer,” available in the library, focused on “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity.” He said questionable language, drunkenness, lying to parents and a lack of remorse by the characters led to the recommendation.
“I just don’t think it’s a good book. I don’t think it’s consistent with these standards and the kind of message that we want to send,” he said. “…If the book had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently.”
Now, unless I’m a moron who is completely misreading Mr. Minor’s comments, it certainly sounds as though he’s making a moral judgment on Twenty Boy Summer.
NOTE: I have not read Twenty Boy Summer and cannot comment on its content. You can read Sarah Ockler’s stellar response (where she also catches Mr. Minor’s moral doublespeak) to the controversy here.
This moralizing is continued by Republic school board member Ken Knierim, who told the UPI (United Press International):
We just felt that of the three books, the two we have pulled aren’t age-appropriate and send the wrong message.
Once again, I cannot speak to the message of Twenty Boy Summer, but Slaughterhouse Five–a scathing satire of the military, warfare, and, ironically enough, the lack of morality that leads to and results from war–seems like an important book to get into the hands of teens just a few months away from being able to sign up for the military. Yes, it’s profane and absurd and takes glee in going after the sacred cows of American machismo, but that’s precisely what makes it a perfect book for high school kids who have been raised in a pop-culture landscape that revels in irreverent entertainment.
Perhaps my favorite quote of this whole mess belongs to Melissa DuVall, another Republic school board member, from the same News-Leader article:
What we have to be proud of is we took a complaint, we took is seriously and we gave it due diligence.
The key word in that quote is “a”. They took “a” complaint, meaning one person complained about the presence of these books. That one person was Mr. Wesley Scroggins. Now here’s the kicker. Are you ready for it?
Mr. Scroggins does not have any children who attend Republic schools. His children are home-schooled. This, of course, begs not only the question of why he cares what books are available at the Republic high school library, but also why did Mr. Minor and the school board take him so seriously?
I don’t have any answers for those questions because I’m a rational person and cannot understand the mindset of people who would make such decisions.
Let’s just go ahead and cut through the bullshit of what is and isn’t age appropriate for teenagers. As I said in my frustrated rant about muting profanity so The King’s Speech could get a PG-13 rating:
Does the MPAA really think teenagers don’t hear and (in most cases) use the word “fuck” on a daily basis?
In this case, the question would be altered to:
Does the Republic school board really think teenagers don’t hear and (in most cases) use the word “fuck” on a daily basis?
Of course, Slaughterhouse Five has been banned from schools many times in the past. The circumstances here (one man complaining who doesn’t even have children in the school) just seem a little more odd than in the past. I’m sure that if he were alive today, Vonnegut’s reaction would be little more than a chuckle or a simple shrug of the shoulders, recognizing the absurdity of the situation with an acceptance that you can’t change the minds of zealots.
For me, personally, I initially was angered by the situation, but that feeling has mellowed into amusement and sadness. Amusement that the tiny town of Republic is getting so much unwanted international attention. Sadness for a region where I was raised but have not called home for several years because stupid shit like this makes me feel that people like myself are unwelcome.
Read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.
For more insights into how school board and the law operate, read my blog entry “Vonnegut and the ‘Right to Read'” at http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com
Charles J. Shields
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November)