It comes down to such an elemental difference in view about the role of public education — maybe especially in Oak Park — that it is inevitably a difficult conversation.
A small group of current and future Percy Julian Middle School parents have made a formal request that District 97 elementary schools remove a novel from the seventh-grade curriculum. In response, the district launched its established review process involving teachers and administrators. Last week the district announced that it would not remove the novel but would allow parents who formally object to the book (Monster by Walter Dean Myers) to have a different book assigned to their children.
The 1999 novel tells the story of a black teen on trial for murder. While the book won a raft of literary awards, seven pairs of parents object to what they describe in their complaint as the book's "violence, gang rape, foul language, drug use, derogatory name-calling, bullying, sexual promiscuity among minors and murder." Some members of the group also were critical of what they perceived to be racial stereotyping.
The complaint suggested that actions and language described in the book would result in detentions and discipline if students were to take such action in the halls of Julian. We agree. Middle-schoolers should not be bullying, using bad language or acting violently in school. That does not mean those topics should not be explored in language arts or history classes. Learning about the wider world, a sometimes violent and troubling world, is a central part of education particularly in formative middle-school years.
The district's form asked the parents if they had read any reviews of the book they objected to. They had and cited a review of Monster from Publisher's Weekly, which included this blurb: "a powerful, haunting impression. An insightful look at a teenage suspect's lost innocence." The parents then wrote, "We do not desire our children to be haunted by their reading nor lose their innocence in the classroom by being introduced to adult topics."
And there you have it, a chasm. A subset of sincere parents who want the schools to actively protect their kids from exposure to the complexities of our world vs. those of us who see our schools as an active partner in widening and deepening our children's world view.
The school district acted admirably in considering this objection, in recognizing the unbridgeable difference between the two expectations, offering an alternative instead, and not backing away from its essential role in challenging the minds of our children.