On the topic of what is suitable reading for students of impressionable ages, the recent action attempted by a handful of parents at Pasco Middle School is instructive mostly because it is terribly familiar.
Every couple of years, it seems, certain grownups will flex their preferences in an attempt to assert preemptory authority over what youngsters are either assigned or even allowed to read.
In 2014, it was a John Long Middle School parent who created a stir when John Green’s popular and well-reviewed “Paper Towns” landed on the mandatory summer reading list.
Now, the book in contention is Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which falls into the same genre: a coming-of-age tale. This one is told from the perspective of a bright, sensitive 15-year-old who, despite his willingness to simply observe from the sidelines, is summoned to experience virtually every cynical, malevolent or simply awkward social situation known to modern America.
Somehow, “Wallflower” became assigned reading for Pasco Middle School seventh-graders taking advanced language arts. That’s “somehow,” because the book got into students’ hands almost totally unvetted.
Pasco Middle’s copies came courtesy of a spend-it-or-lose-it philosophy rampant in taxpayer-supported enterprises. The school had dollars lingering in its materials fund at the end of the last fiscal year and, rather than return them to the cash-strapped district, they were hastily spent on the recommendation of an assistant principal and teacher who’d seen the 2012 movie and had read the publisher’s tout sheet, but not the book itself.
With a box of books that benefited from Hollywood branding just lying around, it was inevitable “Wallflower” would become part of somebody’s curriculum, which it did a few weeks ago.
Luckily, the teacher assigning the book is a long-term member of the faculty who has a reputation for thoroughly reviewing materials assigned students. Oh, wait. The complete opposite of that. The deed was perpetrated by a long-term substitute who also had not read “Wallflower.”
I am confident Pasco’s public school staffers are fans of handing out homework. Is it possible they do none of their own? How do you buy for a middle school population, let alone assign to a passel of 13-year-olds, a book no one has read?
No, forget reading. That could devour an entire weekend. How do you buy or assign a book no one has so much as subjected to an internet search? Within an otherwise glowing description, Wikipedia notes “Wallflower” was banned by some school districts. Some? Further investigation reveals “Wallflower” is a perennial target of angry parents and appalled school board members across the nation.
This does not mean the critics of “Wallflower” are correct, necessarily, or even that Chbosky’s work doesn’t have an appropriate age-group audience. Still, when a cursory search triggers caution flags, it’s a sure sign other education professionals should proceed warily.
Alas, wariness did not prevail at Pasco Middle, which had money to burn and at least one class with late-year time to kill. Small wonder parents staggered by the book’s frank descriptions of suicide, masturbation, drug use and homosexuality were not salved by the methods employed by an administration and faculty they want and need to trust.
Listen, it’s easy enough to rebuke red-faced parents and committees that issue tut-tutting opinions over questionable material as collections of rubes and yahoos. Try to make an argument on behalf of pulling books out of the hands of students or off library shelves without conjuring images of ignorant villagers mobbed up with pitchforks and torches, ready to deliver swift and permanent retribution to some poor, misunderstood innocent. It’s almost impossible.
But what I wrote in June 2014, the last time something like this came up, applies now: Generally speaking, banning books is a bad idea. On the other hand, virtually every rule has an exception, and so it is with this.
When it comes to what goes into a youngster’s mind, parents are the ultimate source authority. You might not approve of what mom and dad choose to withhold or endorse, but you know what? Tough.
If parents oppose exposing the teens under their care to the rough-and-tumble of life you know is out there and, in your wisdom, you think those shielded kids are being ill-served, well, good for you. Also, it’s none of your business.
Meanwhile, it’s on each school at every level, from the classroom teacher to the principal to the superintendent, to be mindful about the individual pace of exposure to the world their parents are willing to endure.
Pasco Middle School failed that fundamental assignment at every turn. Its sadder-but-wiser lesson applies across the region.
Published June 1, 2016