– A presentation to school board trustees that was intended to
show off Gilroy High School’s brightest English students instead
reignited a controversy from last school year involving Toni
Morrison’s graphic novel
GILROY – A presentation to school board trustees that was intended to show off Gilroy High School’s brightest English students instead reignited a controversy from last school year involving Toni Morrison’s graphic novel “Beloved.”
School board trustees want to hear more and better reasons from English department officials before they put their annual stamp of approval on the GHS required reading list, which once again contains the Pulitzer-Prize and Nobel-Prize winning novel. At their board meeting Thursday, Trustees – in some cases vehemently – directed GHS English department head Emily Diaz, and her next year’s replacement Peter Gray, to come back to the June 5 board meeting with the rationale behind each of the books being on the list.
“Personally, I have no problem with any of these books,” Trustee Tom Bundros said. “But you have to give me a better reason for the books being on the reading list. The only reasons I heard tonight were that the books are controversial and how many times the word ‘nigger’ is used.”
Bundros was referring to a presentation by Diaz and Gray that featured roughly two-dozen GHS juniors enrolled in Advanced Placement English. The students read from essays they wrote on censorship. All of the students who spoke touched on the negative consequences of censoring literature and claimed most high school students were mature enough to handle graphic material.
While trustees acknowledged the effort of the students, they told staff to deliver the educational rationale for placing books like “Beloved,” which contains a scene describing rape and bestiality, on the core literature list.
“The question is ‘What is the objective you are trying to achieve in the classroom?’ and ‘What is the best book to achieve that objective,’ ” Trustee Bob Kraemer said.
Last year, parents petitioned to have “Beloved” axed from the required reading list for high school, citing the novel’s graphic content.
“Beloved” tells the story of a former slave who murdered her child and is haunted by the dead child’s ghost. It has been required reading for junior English students for more than eight years and is recommended reading for the Advanced Placement exam which students can take at the end of their AP courses to receive college credit.
On Thursday, parent Mark Zappa read a passage from the novel that used profanity and described, in graphic detail, acts of bestiality.
“You’re telling me you couldn’t find anything better than this?” Zappa said after reading the material aloud. “Is the goal here to educate or be controversial?”
After the controversy last school year, trustees decided to keep the book on the school’s core literature list, but trustees also directed GHS to better publicize the alternative material the school has long made available for students. The school says the literature list has been developed over a 12-year period and aims to familiarize students with classic and culturally diverse material.
As a result of last year’s flap, the school board also enacted what has been dubbed the “censorship policy.” Under the policy, GHS notifies parents at the beginning of each school year that some of their children’s reading material is controversial. The school provides a synopsis and educational rationale for each literature selection so parents can better decide if it is fit for their students.
Parents then sign a letter in agreement with having their child read the core texts or request their child read an alternative text.
“I gave copies of the rationale to each of the board members (at the end of the Thursday’s discussion),” Diaz said. “I just want to give them some time to read that over and let this take its process.”
Ironically, the educational rationale was removed from the background materials trustees are given before each school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Jacki Horejs said. Only the reading list and a brief on the item was provided in the trustees’ information packets.
“I felt badly. I took out all of the rationale (documents) from the board presentation figuring the board had seen that already last year,” Horejs said Monday. “A lot of questions could have been answered that night.”
In the instance of “Beloved,” reviews by high school students, teachers and national newspapers are included with the educational rationale. The document states that many universal themes from alienation and love to friendship and healing are covered in the novel. In addition, historical reference is made to slavery, pre- and post-Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fugitive Slave Act, among other things.