The number of people against the removal of a book from the Helena School District curriculum far out-numbered the proponents at a public hearing Tuesday night, but the committee reviewing the request likely won’t make a decision for at least another month.
The nearly two-hour hearing attended by more than 100 people was the result of a request for reconsideration from Helena mom Michele Smith. She objects to the high schools using “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie in classrooms. Thirty-three people opposed removing the book while four, including Smith, testified in support.
Smith testified that her daughter’s English teacher at Helena High School had three book options to meet the reading requirement. She said the other two options were more challenging and the teacher knew many students would not read them.
“So she chose this book, fifth-grade level material, to target those reluctant readers,” Smith said. “This is a glaring example to me of, instead of challenging and inspiring kids to read at a high level, we are dumbing down our educational standards.”
Smith utilized the district’s opt-out option and her daughter was allowed to read a different title, but she says no person of any age should read this book.
Alexie’s “True Diary” is written from a teenage boy’s perspective of growing up in a challenging environment on the Spokane Indian Reservation and about looking beyond adolescent awkwardness and finding the courage to strive for a better life. The lead character, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, leaves the poverty-stricken reservation school to attend an all-white school more than 20 miles away in hopes to getting a better education.
The book is a New York Times bestseller, won the National Book Award in 2007 in the “Young People’s Literature” section and is on many recommended book lists.
Parts of the book touch on sensitive subjects, such as a teenage boy’s sexual arousals, substance abuse and racism — topics that have caused controversy in Helena as well as communities in other places. In 2008, Crook County High School in Prineville, Ore., removed the book from a freshman English class after a father challenged it with the school board. However, Alexie’s book is used across the country in hundreds of classrooms without being challenged.
In an interview with the Bend Bulletin, Alexie describes the book as a “celebration of the compassion a small town of white conservatives showed … an Indian boy they ended up loving.”
“It’s about following your dreams,” he said. “It’s the story of an Indian kid dreaming of a bigger life. It’s very American.”
Smith testified that proponents say that it is an inspiring story of hope. Yet Smith said Alexie shows gross disrespect to women and homosexuals.
“Many, many people have stories of overcoming difficult childhoods, yet they tell their stories in engaging and honorable ways,” she said. “Alexie endorses objectifying women.”
Local builder Jerry Hamlin said the book uses language that, according to the recently passed health enhancement curriculum, is offensive.
Lori Page and Mikal Wilkerson, both mothers in the Helena School District, testified in favor of removing the book.
“The book discusses things that are morally erosive,” Page said.
Wilkerson said she’s not for banning books, but that Alexie’s book isn’t age appropriate and the district simply can do better with its selection choices.
Lucy Simpson, a local mother and member of the Native American community, was the first to speak out against removing the book. She said the book is not designed to expose the community to American Indians. Simpson said the book is in the curriculum because it’s a good book, but is not designed for teaching history.
“It’s not supposed to give you people who are non-Indians insight to who we are,” she said to the audience.
Rather, she added, it’s written to help us sift through all the difficulties in life and be inspired with hope.
Emily Moore is the teacher of Smith’s daughter and was one of many English teachers who spoke. She said many of her students admittedly don’t read and one student in particular described himself as “stupid” and unable to learn, but that all changed after he read this book.
Moore said she didn’t pick the book to “dumb down” her classroom expectations, but rather to motivate students to get engaged, which was accomplished.
Kelley Morand teaches at Capital and uses the book in her freshman classes. She said it stirs conversation among young people, and the “locker room” talk in the story doesn’t get in the way of the great story.
“What’s most important is my 40 students read the book. They laughed, they cried, and they recommend it,” she said.
Many students also spoke. HHS student Joe Bullington said the book has universal relevance to anyone who has struggled with being an outcast, and banning it would be an insult to the struggles of American Indians.
“You can’t present real life without presenting real life,” he said.
Matthew Downhour, a tutor at CHS, says all his students love the book.
“It’s a fine book that has a lot to do with everything we are trying to teach today,” he said. “All my students loved it and all of them assigned it, read it, and I can’t say that about any other book.”
One student said it opens the minds of readers. Another said everyone who reads it can relate in one way or another. Several students in Emily Stueven’s Helena High English class have told her the book changed their lives.
“One even said it made his life,” she said, describing the book as truth unvarnished and sprinkled with humanity.
HHS teacher Don Pogreba said in his 10 years of teaching he’s never had a student opt out of reading a book in his class, but he doesn’t use Alexie’s book. Pogreba didn’t testify but in a phone interview said he’s supportive of the district’s opt-out policy, but adds that removing a book imposes values on everyone, which is the same as forcing everyone to read a book.
He says what makes a book worth talking about is the controversy within and getting rid of a book because it has potentially objectionable material is too loose of a standard.
Pogreba has read this book and says students respond well, which is sometimes a challenge.
“It raises important questions about adolescents, so it definitely worth having in class,” he said.
Delbert Skidmore said he was born and raised on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and experienced a childhood much like the one described in Alexie’s book. He left one reservation for another and things just got worse. He came to Helena and has been clean and sober for more than four years. Skidmore said a book like this would have helped him growing up.
Librarian Niki Whearty was in tears as she testified because of the turnout and the passion behind people’s testimony.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said to the crowd.
The committee charged with making a recommendation to the superintendent will now deliberate. A decision will be made by Jan. 25 and Smith will then have the opportunity to appeal if her request is denied. School trustees will hear about the issue and make a final decision, most likely at their February meeting.
Written testimony can be submitted to the May Butler Center, at 55. S. Rodney St., or e-mailed to email@example.com until 5 p.m. today.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org