The Mukilteo School Board heard from critics and supporters of Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird at its meeting on Monday, January 10.
The issue facing the board is that the district’s Instructional Materials Committee recommended that the book be removed from the ninth-grade English language arts curriculum. Currently, the book is the only required novel for the ninth grade.
Three high school English teachers in the district submitted a formal request to reopen
Considering the book, the committee voted 63.2% in favor of deletion and 36.8% against. The committee is made up of 20 people, including teachers, librarians, administrators, parents and community members.
The novel deals with issues of race and class in a fictional town in 1930s Alabama. The plot revolves around a dramatic court case involving a black man accused of raping a white girl.
Those who spoke out against the novel responded to the many objections raised by the three teachers.
Ed Glazer, NAACP Snohomish County Education Chair, condemned the use of the N-word, which appears nearly 50 times in the book.
He played a tape of a teacher about how when citing or saying the N-word in class, students felt like a giant spotlight was shining on them.
“One of my students told me his classmates were like ecstasy and turned around to gauge his reaction,” the teacher said.
Glazer said the novel had been used in the district for many years without proper training of teachers.
“We need more training. We don’t know what to do,” he said. “We don’t know how to talk about racism.”
Glazier added that the N-word has traumatized students of color both historically and for generations. “The N-word is racist, it’s derogatory, it perpetuates stereotypes, and it sends students of color into emotional and spiritual hell.”
A Kamiak teacher told the board that the focus should be on what is best for the students.
“No one wants their children, their students, to be traumatized by the school’s actions or inactions,” the teacher said. “As district employees, our job is to protect students from physical, emotional and social harm. …text , material that students come into contact with, is part of that. And ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ does harm.”
The teacher said, “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a completely unnecessary and disrespectful way to teach students about black history and actively force them to take the initiative to speak and endure embarrassing and offensive language.”
Kamiak English teacher Verena Kuzmany, one of three teachers who filed a petition for reconsideration, wanted to make it clear that she did not see the issue as censorship, as some have suggested.
“I want to reiterate that we never asked to review the text,” she said. “We’ve always wanted this book to stay in our library and be available to students. Textbook committees have been deciding which textbooks are suitable for teaching in schools and which are not.
“We want to review ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ using the same standards as modern texts. We concluded that we believe ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ does not promote diversity in our country, which is the IMC The citation of the form, which does not affirm the voice of our BIPOC students, will not pass IMC’s review today.”
Patricia Morrison offers a different take. She told the board that she and her husband were having dinner with some friends, and she told them the school district was considering removing a book from the curriculum. Morrison told them the name of the book, and they got an immediate response.
“I’m amazed by these strong and vivid comments that you can still resonate 50 years after high school,” she said. “This book is enduring because its universal message applies to all races, regardless of race. … The use of the N-word has important implications for understanding how prejudice undermines use and recipients.”
Morrison worries about losing the educational value of the novel.
“Every generation has to learn from their parents’ history, literature and travel,” she said. “Removing children from the truth is tampering with their reality and ability to understand life today and how it has become what it is.”
Ann Freemon also supports keeping the book.
“It would be a disservice to remove ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from our curriculum,” she said. “This novel offers a level of complexity not found in other novels under review. For example, there are metaphors, symbols, satires, foreshadowings, allusions, and themes, to name a few, while others may have one or a second, which are related to the To Kill a Mockingbird has a different level of literature.”
Fremont sees the book as a catalyst for dialogue.
“The novel sparks discussions about the historical issues that we have and will continue to have as a nation,” she said. “Furthermore, it is through our discomfort, all our discomfort with any literature, that we gain insight through learning and then influence change. Should we be sensitive in teaching this and other novels? Yes, absolutely Yes. But the answer is don’t delete it.”
The board seems concerned about the precedent for removing a book from the curriculum.
“It’s hard for me to imagine every book under a magnifying glass,” said board member Judy Schwab.
Then she wondered about other literature.
“I think of misogyny and Shakespeare’s words, so we’re going to accept a request to remove ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ or ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ a true story of the persecution of Jews, from our list of acceptable novels and extinction. Those are the things that come to mind when I think about it.
New board member Charles Hauck also expressed reservations.
“I don’t think it’s a good situation for us to start picking out existing books now,” he said.
Board member John Gahagan said he was divided on the issue because of two conflicting fundamentals he held.
“One is don’t micromanage, don’t have an after-the-fact evaluation of a committee of teachers, community members, parents,” he said. “We’ve put in place a process to select courses that are beneficial in the eyes of the entire community. I also find banned books abhorrent.”
Gahagen added that the proposal was to remove it from the list of required novels, while the book would remain on the approved list for teachers, making him inclined to support the Textbook Committee’s decision.
“I’m going to have to weigh this over the next few weeks,” he said.
Board chairman Michael Simmons said the board had an important decision to make that would have repercussions for years to come.
“The moment we start taking a book out of school and off the shelf, it’s like a slippery slope,” he said. “So, I think it’s just that we have to really, really step back … we Our homework must be done within the next two weeks.”
The board is expected to make a decision on the Textbook Committee’s recommendations at its Jan. 24 meeting.