“To Kill a Mockingbird” restored in Biloxi curriculum, but parental permission required to read it

Two weeks ago I reported that Harper Lee’s superb novel To Kill a Mockingbird was removed from the eighth-grade curriculum of Biloxi, Mississippi after some parents complained that it contained the word “nigger”. (I can’t bear to write “the n-word” since everybody fills it in mentally anyway.) There were also reports about students laughing in class at it, but I can’t quite fathom what happened.

Such a mentality, of course, would also prohibit any number of older books, including Huckleberry Finn and a substantial amount of Faulkner (I just read some Faulkner yesterday containing the word).  Statues glorifying the Confederacy are one thing, but censoring great books because they used the language of the time is another, and the decision was ridiculous. Students hear that word all the time anyway, and surely know how it was used in the days when racism was pervasive.

At any rate, according to the Mississipppi paper the Sun Herald, the school district has backed down and the book can again be taught in class—but only if parents sign a permission slip allowing their child to read it. I suppose that’s okay, but it’s not a good thing to require parental permission for every book that someone might object to. At any rate, the paper reports that it will be taught this way:

On Biloxi Junior High School letterhead, Principal Scott Powell wrote on Oct. 23 to eighth-grade parents: “As has been stated before, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is not a required read for 8th Grade ELA (English Language Arts) students.

“However, 8th Grade ELA teachers will offer the opportunity for interested students to participate in an in-depth book study of the novel during regularly scheduled classes as well as the optional after school sessions …”

The intensive book study will not take place everyday, the letter states, “but we plan to finish the novel before Christmas break.”

 The principal goes on to tell parents that the students will write an argumentative essay and discuss comparisons of characters and events between the book and the 1960s film.

Students who don’t want to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” will be given another assignment that keeps them on track for class and state assessments. They will just have a different topic for their argumentative essay.

The good news is that this restoration of the book came after what the paper reports as  “National Outrage”—outrage that must have been sufficiently loud to make the school board change its mind.  One objector was Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education under Obama and, before that, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. This is not a man who’s ignorant of education:

And to further brighten your day, look how others reacted, including distant schools, a local bookstore, and the Biloxi Public Library. (Librarians everywhere are great, with almost all of them—save the hypocriticalDr. Seuss redactor” in Cambridge, Massachusetts—opposed to censorship.)

In the paper’s report, I’ve bolded part of a letter from an eight-grade class in New Jersey:

Biloxi received letters as diverse as one from an 11th-grade Advanced Placement language class in Tenafly, New Jersey, that urged Biloxi to continue teaching the book and one from the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The 11th-graders sent a letter of protest appealing to each Biloxi School Board member not to remove Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” from the classroom. They recalled their experiences reading the book in eighth grade at Tenafly and implored Biloxi to immediately put it back in the classroom for this school year.

“These derogatory and offensive words are powerful; they make people uncomfortable because they are painful to hear. However, it is critical that discrimination, offensive language and racism are discussed in the classroom,” the students wrote. “We need a book like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to illustrate the extreme prejudice that existed in our country’s past and to help start a conversation about the issues that sadly still exist today.”

The Mark Twain House sent an offer of help teaching racially controversial material. That organization has expertise, resources and experience helping educators and other entities teach difficult subject matter.

“Great literature makes us uncomfortable. It changes how we think, forcing us to analyze our established points of view,” the letter stated. “Guiding students through that process is, as you know, a key element of middle-school literary studies. We have nothing but sympathy for the difficult situation you find yourself in, fielding complaints from parents who may not understand the book being taught or why its author uses certain words. We also know the difficulty of navigating uncomfortable texts when students are not able to handle the material maturely and appropriately. These books should build empathy, and not be used to single out classmates.”

An author and Biloxi book shop teamed up to give away 100 of the books to Biloxi students and the Biloxi Public Library issued a Facebook notice that it would order extra copies and make sure “Mockingbird” stays on the shelves. And the ACLU of Mississippi responded to Biloxi saying it opposes censorship in all forms.

h/t: Woody

24 Comments

  1. BobTerrace
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    If they require a signed permission slip for that book, then they should require a signed permission slip for anyone bringing a Bible or Koran into school. Those books have far more offensive material in them.

    All three are works of fiction but one actually reflects reality of the time it was produced.

  2. Jake Sevins
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I was relieved that no one complained that the book was a “white savior narrative,” though maybe that’s coming next.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Good news from a backward state. I don’t understand why you need permission from a parent to read a book. That never would have been a consideration when I was growing up? But then we were not looking to school as a baby-sitter or a place for breakfast and lunch.

    To the kids who do read the book, recommend they also read Go Set A Watchman, after.

    • yazikus
      Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Your school didn’t serve lunch or supervise you until the end of the school day? Odd. Parents have been complaining about books in schools for as long as schools have been around. I got pulled from middle school English for the duration which my class read Hesse’s Siddhartha. I checked it out that week and read it under the covers that night.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        I am talking long ago, same age as PCC and grew up mostly in rural Iowa. You could pay and eat lunch in school but it was your choice. I think the attitude then was – I send my kids to school so you can educate them. That was your responsibility as a public school. Anything that needed school to parents communication was handled mostly at PTA meetings.

        • yazikus
          Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          It wasn’t that long ago 😉
          This is the first year I’ve got kiddo in public school, and while he only gets to buy a lunch once every two weeks or so, I don’t see much difference in how it is handled. Except for the app where the teacher updates behavior points through the day, I have no idea how she makes time for it. Kiddo says school is way easier than his last school (slightly concerning to me) but he loves it.

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted October 29, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            I do not have kids but do expect it is much different today. When I was in grade school the 6th grade teacher was also the principal and she had one clerk/secretary. That was it for the admin in a school of K thru 6th grade. I did not see a principal that just did principal’s job until junior high – 7th and 8th grade. There were no counselors or nurses or anything. Any coaches were also teachers.

            • yazikus
              Posted October 29, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              Would it be fair to say there were not a lot of students, either? I think it largely depends on where you live, and how big the school is. I’ve been to all sorts of schools (baptist school, public school, international school, home school, etc) and what you’re describing sounds most like kiddo’s private school. About sixty students- K-8. Headmaster was also the math and history instructor, his wife was the secretary, and they had mixed age classrooms. No hot lunch offered, no nurse, no coaches, and quite strict.

              • Randall Schenck
                Posted October 29, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

                I really do not know how many per school. The town of about 5,000 had three grade schools, K-6, and one junior high and one high school. Today they have only one grade school. The grade school I went to is now all Administration. That should say something. This is all public school. No such thing as private. I think the Lutherans had a school out in the country. But to give you an example – if you are familiar with school patrol. We had one of those in grade 6. If you were part of school patrol you had to put on your belt and badge and work the street to stop cars and make sure the kids got across the street at the busy intersections. Do you know of any 6 grade kids doing this kind of work at schools today? No you don’t. It is all contracted out to adults who do this work today.

        • BJ
          Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          While I’m sure there are plenty of parents that see school as a way to place their kids elsewhere for a good portion of the day, everybody I know sees it as an education. And they can choose whether or not to send them with their lunch or have them buy it at school, while the kids eat breakfast at home.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Which Faulkner you readin’, boss?

    Pat Conroy — a great practitioner of Southern Lit himself — said his southern-to-the-bone momma (the inspiration for the narrator’s mother in Prince of Tides) gave him this synopsis his chosen genre: “All southern literature can be summed up in these words: ‘On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.'”

    I have a love-hate relationship with the American South myself, but the literature, and the music, and the food are among the parts I love best, heaven help me.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:34 am | Permalink

      I have a love-hate relationship with America, period.

      Love the Conroy’s Mom quote. 😀

    • David Coxill
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like the worst Country song title ever .

  5. yazikus
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I have to wonder if the response from the parents who don’t want their kids reading is really due to the language. Color me skeptical. I suppose if this had been somewhere else than Mississippi, say, Berkeley, I might buy it. That said, telling kids they can’t read something is usually the best way to get them to read it.

    • Posted October 29, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it! Restricting what a child can read is sure method to cause her/him to read whatever book it is. I read books that were not supposed to be read by children, in addition to most of the children’s books in the library. I don’t think it has harmed me, although the evangelicals might disagree.

      Do these children require parental permission for sex education (or remaining virginal), birth control, abortion, etc.? In addition, there’s so much not being taught in schools these days: civics, history (especially of wars: Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, the wars of other countries, etc.), cursive writing, grammar, composition, music, art, foreign languages, science of some kinds.

      When my kids were in grade school in Palo Alto, CA there were no assigned readers. The children were taught to use the school library and selected whatever books interested them. I’m certain they read more that way than they would have with an assigned reader. Summers were a time when the students competed to see who could read the most books.

      When we moved to Salem, OR (state capitol), the kids lost almost half the curriculum they’d had in Palo Alto. When we moved from Salem, OR to Lebanon,OR (a much smaller mill town), they lost a significant part of what had been available in Salem. Schools were required to test all students on the same list of “knowledges/skills” and students had to take certain classes whether they’d already learned the material previously or not. There was no such thing as taking a test to show competency in order to take a different class.

      All of us need to know about the past, to understand the times and the differences in attitudes and in language. It is too easy to imagine “good old days” that never were, or on the other hand, to think the way things are now is how it’s always been. We need to know the truth.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “Mockingbird” is interestingly a quasi-white-savior narrative in which the “savior” fails utterly, thus implicitly showing that narrative as impoverished.

    I have tried to think of other possible euphemisms for the n-word, and one I thought of is a bit two cute: the gingergram (as it is an anagram of “ginger”). Or if you are fan of “Blazing Saddles”, the ni-word.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 29, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Seems like white novelists writing about race these days can’t win for losing. If they write from the perspective of a white protagonist, they’re likely to be accused of creating a “white savior” narrative. If they write from the perspective of a black protagonist, or include a black hero, they’re like to be accused of cultural appropriation or creating a “magical negro” narrative.

      For my money, the best fictionist on the race front today is Richard Price, author of novels like Clockers and Lush Life, and one of the primary scriptwriters for the HBO series The Wire. Price avoids commentary and opinionating; he just lays it out there, with great humanity and verve.

      • BJ
        Posted October 29, 2017 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        It’s such a shame that even a book like TKAM now suffers from these silly “white savior” narratives. The point of the book isn’t to show Atticus Finch as some sort of savior, but to tell the story of a white person in a time of deep and open racism being willing to stand up and defend a black person (a black person hated by the community and perceived by all to be guilty of the crime with which he’s charged). It’s an allegory for how all people should act, tearing down our own racism to focus on our shared humanity. If stories like that are somehow offensive because the white character is perceived to be a “savior,” I don’t know what to say.

        But as you’ve pointed out, there’s always a charge to be levied these days, no matter what an author writes.

        • Posted October 30, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          It is also to tell us that sometimes prejudice isn’t obvious, too – sometimes it is so ingrained in us that it takes something overwhelming to knock us senseless.(Consider the kids’ attitude to Boo Radley at first.)

    • Posted October 30, 2017 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      I think Tim Minchin got there before you 🙂

  7. Barbara Radcliffe
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    In response to Randall Schenk’s comment above, in South Australia all primary schools have children on crossing duty. It is usually sixth graders, and is thought to help teach them to act responsibly.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 29, 2017 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s great. Have never seen it here in the states since I was a boy. Assume it is just one of those sign of the times, liabilities and lawyers. Today it is a job some retired folks go for (part time jobs).

  8. Posted October 30, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    The state that leads the country in obesity, lowest GDP, lowest rate of seatbelt use and lowest educational attainment per capita, is worried about young people reading “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

    Carl


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