A Town's Struggle in the Culture War
MUHLENBERG, Pa. - In April, at an otherwise mundane meeting of the school board here, Brittany Hunsicker, a 16-year-old student at the local high school, stood up and addressed the assembled board members.
"How would you like if your son and daughter had to read this?" Miss Hunsicker asked.
Then she began to recite from "The Buffalo Tree," a novel set in a juvenile detention center and narrated by a tough, 12-year-old boy incarcerated there. What she read was a scene set in a communal shower, where another adolescent boy is sexually aroused.
"I am in the 11th grade," Miss Hunsicker said. "I had to read this junk."
Less than an hour later, by a unanimous vote of the board (two of its nine members were absent) "The Buffalo Tree" was banned, officially excised from the Muhlenberg High School curriculum. By 8:30 the next morning all classroom copies of the book had been collected and stored in a vault in the principal's office. Thus began a still unresolved battle here over the fate of "The Buffalo Tree," a young adult novel by Adam Rapp that was published eight years ago by HarperCollins and has been on the 11th-grade reading list at Muhlenberg High since 2000. Pitting teachers, students and others who say the context of the novel's language makes it appropriate for the classroom against those parents and board members who say context be damned, it is a dispute illustrative of the so-called culture war, which, in spite of its national implications, is fought in almost exclusively local skirmishes. The board was set to meet the evening of June 1 to reconsider its decision.
"We're absolutely middle-American," said Joseph Yarworth, the schools' superintendent for the last nine years. "And we're having an argument over our values."
According to the American Library Association, which asks school districts and libraries to report efforts to ban books - that is, have them removed from shelves or reading lists - they are on the rise again: 547 books were challenged last year, up from 458 in 2003. These aren't record numbers. In the 1990's the appearance of the Harry Potter books, with their themes of witchcraft and wizardry, caused a raft of objections from evangelical Christians.
Judith Krug, director of the library association's office for intellectual freedom, attributed the most recent spike to the empowerment of conservatives in general and to the re-election of President Bush in particular. The same thing happened 25 years ago, she said. "In 1980, we were dealing with an average of 300 or so challenges a year, and then Reagan was elected," she said. "And challenges went to 900 or 1,000 a year."
Muhlenberg is a township of modest homes and 10,000 people or so, a bedroom community for the city of Reading, in the southeastern quadrant of the state. It is conservative politically and almost entirely white, and there are a growing number of evangelical Christians. Miss Hunsicker had just returned from a two-week church mission in Honduras when, encouraged by her mother, she made her public complaint.
But the town is not militantly right wing. It is significant that even the more vociferous opponents of the book did not insist it come off the school library shelves (though thieves apparently took care of that). In fact, on April 14, as soon as Dr. Yarworth discovered that an overzealous underling had had copies of the novel stored in the school vault, he ordered them returned to storage in classrooms so it could still be read by students who sought it out.
"I wanted us to comply with the narrowest possible interpretation of the board's decision," Dr. Yarworth said.
What followed was a period of unusual activism here. Students circulated petitions. Teachers prepared defenses of the book, and their local union prepared a defense of the teacher who had assigned it. Letters on both sides appeared in the local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, which published a number of articles about the dispute. In May a column appeared headlined "The Upside of Censorship," by a regular columnist, John D. Forester Jr., who wrote that after reading only "passages" of "The Buffalo Tree," "I am actually applauding the efforts of parents to have books banished in their school libraries and classrooms." A few days later, an editorial took the opposing view.
On May 4, the school board met for the first time since banning "The Buffalo Tree" and about 200 people attended, 10 times the usual number, Dr. Yarworth said. The president, Mark Nelson, apologized for his vote to ban the book, not because he approved of it in the curriculum - he admitted later he had not read it - but because he felt the decision had been hasty and in violation of the board's policy for book challenges, which says a challenge should first be heard by a committee of teachers and administrators before the issue goes before the board.
Another member, Otto Voit, who had read the novel, responded that the board, as the ultimate authority, was within its rights in removing the book from the curriculum.
Over the next two hours, some of the rhetoric on both sides became inflated. Some declared that dirty words are dirty words, and that with novels like "The Buffalo Tree" being taught it's no wonder American society is going down the tubes. And others, not allowing for the genuine discomfort that some readers of "The Buffalo Tree" feel, invoked the specter of Nazi book-burning.
Several students spoke with more reasonable passion about the value of the novel, and one high school senior, Mary Isamoyer, offered to replace the missing library copies of "The Buffalo Tree" with her own.
"Do not insult our intelligence by keeping this book from us," she said.
Tammy Hahn, a mother of four and perhaps the most outspoken of the book's opponents, responded that the students' view was irrelevant. She was not about to let her daughter take part in a classroom discussion about erections, she said, adding that it amounted to harassment to subject a girl to the smirks and innuendoes of male classmates who would have no sympathy for her discomfort.
"This is not about a child's opinion," she said of the students' defense of the book. "This is about parents."
Afterward, Joan Kochinsky, a board member who had not been at the previous meeting, moved that the ban be rescinded. But wary of making another decision in haste, the board postponed the vote for a week.
On May 11, it met for another tense, well-attended session that lasted until nearly midnight. This time there was much discussion about the particulars of Miss Hunsicker's unhappiness with the book.
School policy allows for alternate reading assignments when a student or a parent objects to a book on religious or moral grounds, but Miss Hunsicker never did that; her mother, Tammy, said she would have made those specific objections if she had known it was necessary. Miss Hunsicker had simply asked for something else to read because she didn't like "The Buffalo Tree," and her teacher, Luana Goldstan, refused.
"No one is more critical of literature than English teachers," Stacia Richmond, a colleague of Ms. Goldstan's, told the board. "Do you really think we as educators choose literature in terms of its titillation? Do you not realize we are battling the same immorality you are?"
Dr. Yarworth then suggested that confusion could be avoided if a more explicit policy for book challenges were given to parents, including a synopsis of all books on the required reading lists. If that were done, he asked, would the board consider rescinding the ban on "The Buffalo Tree"?
An informal poll was taken, and by a 5-to-3 vote the board indicated it was ready to reverse itself. It was unclear how many members had finished "The Buffalo Tree"; at least two had, at least three had not. But the lengthy debate seemed to prepare them to change their minds.
After the meeting, however, Mrs. Hahn said she felt her arguments had been given short shrift, and she met privately with Mr. Nelson, the board president, to push the idea of a rating system for schoolbooks, similar to what the Motion Picture Association of America does for films. And on May 18, the board rejected the English department's new policy for book challenges and asked that Mrs. Hahn's requests be accommodated: that reading lists made available to parents include a ratings system, plot summaries of all assigned books, and the identification of any potentially objectionable content.
Teachers adamantly opposed these strictures, Michael Anthony, chairman of the English department, said, adding that they would undoubtedly result in more frequent challenges. Dr. Yarworth, who is trying to broker a compromise between the board and faculty, said he had already heard a few grumbles about "Of Mice and Men" and "Catcher in the Rye."
In any case, Mr. Anthony said, " 'The Buffalo Tree' isn't coming back anytime soon."