Tuesday, July 11, 2006


In the fall of our daughter’s seventh-grade year at the award-winning Westside Middle School in Omaha, Neb., I noticed a paperback book on top of her backpack. The title: “Killing Mr. Griffin,” by Lois Duncan.

Hunh. This must be what she’s reading for English class. Let’s take a look.

It flipped open to: “He’s an asshole.” (p. 50)

Whoops! I slammed it shut. Must be an aberration.

I flipped it open again. This time, my eyes beheld, “You’re sure in a shitty mood.” (p. 137)

WHAAAT?!? This is literature class for 12-year-olds? My tax dollars at work?

I speed-read the book, which was about a plot by nasty, sociopathic high-school kids to kidnap and kill a strict teacher, and the murder-arson coverup that followed. I recorded numerous objectionable phrases:

“Plan to kill the bastard” (p. 17)
“Oh, Christ” (p. 72, the first of several usages of “Christ” as a swear word)
“(O)n the way over here I got stopped by a pig cop” (p. 72)
“(N)ow, you shit, we’re going to make you crawl” (p. 82)
“(I)t’s just that Mark would be so pissed off” (p. 88)
“I will be burned alive” (p. 215)

Turns out it was one of four assigned novels for seventh-grade English that year. She wasn’t supposed to bring the book home; wonder why? Her class was almost done reading it. But I had to squawk.

Lousy, vicious, antisocial curriculum is the last thing today’s kids need in this day of increasing crime and violence. I had no idea how much the coarsened speech and dumbed-down content of TV had infected their schoolwork. We parents had to be vigilant about keeping our young teens away from violent and smutty movies, MTV and video games . . . and now we had to police their schoolwork, too?

Bottom line: what was educational, constructive, uplifting or enlightening about this book? Nothing. Who picked this book, and why?

I was very disappointed in Westside. I’d grown up in the same district and had enjoyed a fabulous literary education, studying many of the classics of American and world literature. English classes in that district had prepared me well to earn my bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri and to conduct a career as a newspaper reporter and free-lance writer.

We had moved back into the same district expecting our children to get the same quality education; I had poured myself in to volunteering for the schools, raising money, and supporting the teachers and administrators with faithful service.

But it was gradually dawning on me that the excellence I had enjoyed as a kid was fading fast, despite skyrocketing expenditures, bond issue after bond issue, and glitzy facilities.

However, I held out hope. I was a “rah-rah.” They liked me. I’d bring this book to their attention, and surely they’d slap their foreheads, throw it out, and substitute – you know – Austen, Wordsworth, Browning, Twain, Dickens, Poe. . . .

But as the raven quoth, nevermore.

First the teacher, then the principal, looked at me saucer-eyed. “What’s WRONG with this book? That’s the kids’ world today. You’re just behind the times. We have to teach what’s relevant. They don’t have the vocabulary for the classics any more, and anyway, the classics aren’t meaningful to today’s seventh-graders. You’re the only one who’s ever complained. You’re a nasty censor. You’re attacking us! WAH! GO AWAY!!!”

I just kept asking, “Who picked this book, and why?”

I found out later that there was a Berkeley graduate with radical politics, new to the English department, with powerful relatives, who’d suggested it. Other staffers meekly went along with her. My query had exposed the unprofessional way curriculum wound up in front of students at that school. They were embarrassed.

So they stonewalled me. Their shields were up. It was groupthink, bigtime.

Advised to keep my concerns under the radar so as to not embarrass them any further, I went to the library and researched “Griffin” and the three other novels on the assigned reading list, which were just as bad. All four were written by women in the past 20 years; all four had “victimization” themes on genocide, suicide, euthanasia, racial violence and bigotry.

After about 20 hours of work, I turned in a report to school officials and a sympathetic school board member, including:

-- Detailed requests for reconsideration of educational materials on forms provided by the school;
-- Author biographies;
-- Critical reviews;
-- Photocopies of objectionable passages;
-- A list of classic books which covered the same basic themes with better writing, no profanity, no graphic violence, higher-level vocabulary, better plots and more vivid characterizations -- quality alternatives to each of the four books;
-- A list of the great books I had read at about that same age in the same district (including Aesop, Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Wilde, Stevenson, Kipling, etc.);
-- A list of 30 excellent literary classics available in inexpensive paperback at a nearby bookstore;
-- A summary of the “menu-driven” reading programs of other area middle schools that I hoped ours could emulate;
-- A copy of the orientation materials given to parents on Curriculum Night, which did not list the four assigned novels;
-- Suggestions such as giving parents a syllabus at the start of the school year so that it didn’t appear they were hiding what they were teaching;
-- A copy of the middle school’s “Summer Reading List” for the year before, which included two of the four assigned novels, meaning that some kids were reading the same books twice;
-- An article by a children’s literature professor about the connection between violence in the media – including school media -- and real-life violence;
-- I rented the most shocking movie of the past, “A Clockwork Orange,” and compared its profanity – six curse words – to the 27 in “Killing Mr. Griffin.”

After all that . . . nothing happened.

I finally took the matter public, which I probably should have done from the first. I ratcheted up the pressure by handing out a one-page fact sheet about these books at Open House. Finally, with other parents complaining, too, school officials set up a study committee. It was composed of all insiders who were financially dependent on the district’s good graces. I knew it was a sham, but at least it was better than nothing.

Five months later, the committee finally issued a brief, weak, poorly-worded report. They agreed that “Killing Mr. Griffin” was “inappropriate,” and should be removed from the curriculum. The other three bad books, however, they thought were dandy. The implication was: here, we’ll throw you a bone; now, go away.

So we did; we moved away. Our daughter and I had taken a lot of abuse, been subjected to rumors and gossip – including one howler, that I didn’t believe the Holocaust had ever happened (?) -- and had been mistreated and patronized by a school district we had supported and brought honor to.

We moved to a better district. I got along fine with the new English department, who miraculously know a real book from schlock.

Our three older kids graduated with honors and got bigtime college scholarships. The youngest is in a private Christian school; book selection is great, and life is rosy.

For years, I ran into parents and educators who thanked me for standing up to the powers that be. We agreed that parents need to be as careful with what schools are putting into our children’s hearts and minds as we are with the food we’re putting into their bodies. And if schools try to feed ‘em junk in the form of lousy books, you’ve got to squawk.

If enough of us do, we’ll prevail. Together, we can steer schools back to teaching kids the great stories of the ages . . . and we can all live happily ever after.

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