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Hundreds attend book hearing

2010-12-03T00:00:00Z 2010-12-03T09:03:29Z Hundreds attend book hearingBy ALANA LISTOE Independent Record Helena Independent Record
December 03, 2010 12:00 am  • 

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 bmessinger@helena.k12.mt.us until 5 p.m. today.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@helenair.com

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(13) Comments

  1. Jaymie
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    Jaymie - December 09, 2010 1:37 pm
    The Bible is full of stories of rape, murder, incest, infidelity, polygamy, child abuse, and bloody war. The Bible has stories in it that support slavery and the dis-empowerment of women all in the name of "God". I've read the Bible and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and, in my opinion, of the two books, the Bible is far more questionable, offensive and graphic.
  2. mybeanz
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    mybeanz - December 08, 2010 9:42 am
    When did you all decide to sit in judgment?
    Who elected you to be the saviors of everybody's souls here in Helena? And when you've banned all the books that you think are inappropriate- what will you do then?
    The whole idea of allowing any kind of censorship into our schools makes me sick and I truly feel sorry for anyone who is afraid of a book or the knowledge potentially obtained from reading one. You know what- let's just ban reading all together and set up giant TV screens on every corner that tell you what to think- that way no one will ever learn anything and there wont be a need for discussions like this. That reminds me of another book I read once, Fahrenheit 451. Art imitating life imitating art? Maybe- or maybe it's just a sad reflection of a society filled with people who like to pretend they already know everything.
  3. Goldstein84
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    Goldstein84 - December 08, 2010 8:47 am
    Hamlin should find a better angle to attack this book. You can't say that the Health Curriculum is misrepresentative of Helena values and then use it to bolster a case against Alexie's book.
  4. 4HelenaKids
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    4HelenaKids - December 07, 2010 6:23 pm
    What's really ironic, is that its OK to talk about this box and the sexually related portions, using it as an "educational tool", but legally, for the staff, it becomes a great liability under "sexual harassment" in regard to civil rights laws. If a single child is offended let's say about the word; masturbation, a teacher and the district could be sued for sexual harassment.
    On another note, if the author was caucasian talking about living somewhere in the boon docks, or on an island or in the wilderness with no more opportunity than this author had, would the school have been so interested in making it a part of the curriculum, and would all of the pro-commenters be so vehemently protective of the sexually explicit portions in that instance, as they are now because the author is not white? What if the author had ended up in life as a pedophile, or a murderer, or a gas station attendant? Would it be part of the curriclum then?
  5. myvoice
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    myvoice - December 07, 2010 7:23 am
    Curmudgeon: I believe American morals and values are fading into a darkness that I don't wish to stand silently by and allow to happen. In regards to this circumstance I will have my youngest child read a different book when his time for this grade/class comes. I'm glad Mrs. Smith brought it to our attention so I know.

    I'm sorry you believe the Bible is a fairy tale. If you would give God a chance and really open up your heart to Him you could experience Him to. He offers life and life more abundantly to everyone. One day all will know the truth. What He tells me to do is pray for you. I will be doing that.
  6. Curmudgeon
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    Curmudgeon - December 06, 2010 11:30 am
    MyVoice, what about those of us who are not Christians, and could not care less what your Judaeo-Chrisian fairy tale book might or might not say?

    Are we supposed to let YOUR interpretation decide what we may or may not read?

    Ancient proverb: "Christianity has a few great teachings and a million bad teachers."
  7. myvoice
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    myvoice - December 04, 2010 1:14 am
    Just because we have to live IN THIS WORLD does not mean we are OF IT and have to accept the continual degrading of social morals. We are to be the salt and light of the world .. and yes by "we" I mean Christians.

    I won't speak for others against this book.. but my opinion is it does degrade your soul (soul = your mind, will and emotions) when you subject it over and over to perversion and less than good things. Not that this book is hard core porn .. it isn't.. but this and things like it are a slow fade towards darkness that will NOT bring life and life more abundantly to ANYONE. I for one do not want to knowingly cause anyone to stumble.. and by that I mean - my and other people's children to stumble - by standing silent and allowing them to read this soft porn. Rather than this book.. I'd like to suggest all teenagers and adults alike read "Alcohol - The Beloved Enemy" by Jack Van Impe. Wow.. it's fascinating and an eye opener. I wish I had read it when I was a Freshman and 14 it could have changed the choices I made when I was younger.

    Out of this darkness a great revival is coming. It's already happening.. the Holy Spirit is moving. Wow.. look out! Helena is going to experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit like never before.. and one day St. Peter's Hospital will be empty because there are no more sick people. Glory to God! That will be an awesome day!

    When the world becomes darker and darker - the church (God's people) will become brighter and brighter (health, healings, prosperity, favor, etc). The Christians will be a light to the unsaved in darkest times. The light is where it's at people.. the Blessing beyond your wildest dreams.

    A book like this is NOT a step towards the light.. it is a slow fade to darker and darker grey.. and then black. I for one won't allow the "world" to slowly numb me to sin so that it becomes "not that bad" or to say "well, it could be worse". That is satan's deception and he is so conniving. You won't know it's him and you won't realize what's happening and it just continues a slow fade to black. Check out the song Slow Fade by Casting Crowns on YouTube.

    The Bible tells us the world will hate us and that's ok because I know how it turns out in the end. I pray for the eyes of the deceived to be open to the truth. God's Word (the Bible) is the "Truth" the way and the light. The ONLY way. Don't be deceived. Don't wait to choose. Don't be lukewarm. Chose wisely so we can all rejoice together in the Kingdom of God forever! Hell is very real and people who believe in God go there. (Satan believes in God!) 22 Minutes in Hell is another awesome book for believers and non-believers alike. Check it out - you won't be sorry. And for those who say.. oh, God is a loving God.. he would never send me to Hell.. no He won't send you to hell. He allows you to choose. And if you don't understand what that means find a FULL GOSPEL church and ask. Please don't wait! It could be too late.
  8. leslie_bell
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    leslie_bell - December 03, 2010 9:49 pm
    Sherman Alexie is an award-winning author who writes with deep empathy and insight, and with unflinching honesty. He is one of the best of our times; a great source of pride for the Pacific Northwest. Selecting one of his books for an English class was an inspired choice.
  9. clancykid
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    clancykid - December 03, 2010 9:35 pm
    Out of all the books, this one is the one that was chosen? This is one review from a person on Amazon: "There is an interesting story line, but readers (especially parents) need to know about the language in the book, some graphic, some sexual and in my opinion very inappropriate. The story could be just as educational and compelling without the language and sexual content."

    Certainly we can do better. There are so many wonderful young adult books that have an extremely positive message without all the filth. Can we not select one of those instead?
  10. gun961960
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    gun961960 - December 03, 2010 10:13 am
    Bojangles I am inclined to agree with you, but at this point there is a group of parents in our community who will seemingly do ANYTHING to derail our kids from leaving their sheltered box of a world the live in. They are a bunch of ultra conservatives that seem to hear or see any word that is sexual in nature and they FREAK OUT!!! First we had four months of meetings and public comment sessions and LTE's and back and forth about the health curriculum, where I might add that Mrs. Wilkerson and her gang did almost anything they could to help keep the general public as mis informed as possible. I just did a search on facebook to see if either of the Wilkersons had a page and I came across a Mikal Wilkerson who is a student at Capital, a coincidence I think not. Here is what I found odd, this teenager was smart enough to block her wall, but left her "likes" available for everyone to see. Seems that while Mikal and Trevor are out policing what the rest of us should be allowing our kids to read or learn this Mikal Wilkerson class of 11 on facebooks favorite book is Twilight (and if any of you have read these books, book 4 is very sexual) and her favorite shows are Jersey Shore and MTV's 16 and pregnant. HUH?? This has to be a mistake, and it could me, this could be their niece or something, but if it is their kid than they should SHUT UP and worry a little more about their own kid. Our kids can't read a book in High School English class that has a few subtle references to sex, but her teenager is watching Jersey Shore and 16 and pregnant. Seriously???
  11. Bojangles
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    Bojangles - December 03, 2010 8:52 am
    "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."

    18 year olds are in Afghanistan killing and being killed. 15 year olds are having babies. Some kids start their own businesses. Some kids volunteer and work with abused women. We can't hide our children from the realities of the world - What we can do is be honest with them, treat them like young adults - and teach them how to sift through all of what they will find in the world, and to make the most educated and well informed decisions that they can possibly make for what they want out of life.

    I respect this mother for asking for a hearing. I disagree with her - but at the same time, its encouraging to see that parents are involved enough to read the books assigned to their kids. That's the best we can do as parents - stay involved, and be of as much support as possible. But don't shelter your kids - they'll only resent you for it later.
  12. Curmudgeon
    Report Abuse
    Curmudgeon - December 03, 2010 8:28 am
    Well, gee whillikers, if she finds the book offensive, she's just exercising her Constitutional Right Not To Be Offended. It's right there in black-and-white, in Article...well, in Section...well, I can't find it right now, but it's got to be in there somewhere, don't it?

    (LOL)
  13. RightMT
    Report Abuse
    RightMT - December 03, 2010 8:16 am
    So is Smith in favor or opposed to the book? From the article: "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 Dairy of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie in classrooms. Thirty-three people opposed removing the book while four, including Smith, testified in support."

    I think any material should be age appropriate. I also know that schools are dumming down material. This does not help kids it makes them bored. When they are bored they drop-out.

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