CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The graphic depictions of violence, suicide and sexual assault in two Pat Conroy books are at the heart of a First Amendment debate, pitting offended parents against high school students who don’t want to be told what they can’t read.
Even Conroy has interjected himself into the debate. In a published e-mail to a student, Conroy slams those who would ban his works as “idiots.”
Now a student group is vowing to sue the Kanawha County Board of Education if the removal of Beach Music and The Prince of Tides from two Nitro High School classes is made permanent and expanded countywide.
The school board plans to discuss that possibility today. At least two of the five members have questioned whether the books belong in school.
The Conroy book challenge is one of hundreds of reports the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom receives every year on requests to have books and other materials removed from school or library shelves, including the popular Harry Potter series, which some Christians believe promotes witchcraft.
Such works as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have also been targets in the past.
Steve Shamblin, who teaches the honors English class for juniors and the Advanced Placement literature course for seniors at Nitro High School, said the graphic depictions contained in Conroy’s books are found in newspapers every day. He also noted that several literary groups have deemed the books as age-appropriate for high school upperclassmen.
“As long as we stay in a 1950s utopian mind-set, we’re not going to get past the 20th century,” he said.
Among the groups vehemently opposing the removal of the books are the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English.
“Parents may have a fundamental right to send their child to a public school, but they don’t have a fundamental right to direct the way public schools teach their child,” said Terri Baur, interim director of the state ACLU chapter. “Think about the implications of this. Are they going to pull a math textbook because a parent doesn’t like the way multiplication is being taught?”
Conroy did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Associated Press, but defended his books in an e-mail to George Washington student Makenzie Hatfield, who teamed with her Advanced Placement English classmates and Nitro students to form a coalition against censorship.
Because the two books were banned “every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots,” he said. “They don’t know how the world works — but writers and English teachers do.”
He referred to the books as “two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, ‘Lord, this is how I found the world you made.’”
Conroy said his late father fought in three wars and turned violent on his wife and seven children; his youngest brother committed suicide; an aunt was raped; eight classmates at the Citadel were killed in Vietnam, and his best friend died last summer in a car accident.
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, says it’s not uncommon for authors to stand up for their work either themselves or through an advocate.
Parents Ken and Leona Tyree found certain scenes in The Prince of Tides “obscene and offensive” and Leona Tyree said she was unable to finish the book. Their son has since left Shamblin’s Advanced Placement literature class.
Parent Karen Frazier, who complained about violence in Beach Music, told school board members last month that she wants guidelines in place for books used in public schools.
“If a teacher was on a computer and sending this filth to underage students, they’d probably be arrested,” Frazier said at the meeting.
Neither Frazier nor the Tyrees had listed phone numbers. Jeremy Dys, executive director of the West Virginia Values Coalition, said the parents have referred requests for comment to him.
“Parents have the right to object to educational material that offends their moral underpinnings,” Dys said.
Hatfield agrees, but says “this is a college class.”
“We chose to take this class. The school didn’t tell us to. We chose.”
Hatfield says her student group is prepared to go to court if the school board sides with the parents.
Kanawha County has been the battleground of book controversies before. In 1974, police dealt with rock throwing and other violence, forcing a countywide closing of schools, after the school board voted to remove books labeled as the most offensive pending a review. Thousands of workers joined in the boycott. A textbook review committee made recommendations, and the school board later agreed.