RUMSON, N.J. — How many obscenities should a senior be given to read for English class in public school? Is reading about “dusting off a diaphragm” too much for juniors?
Or are explicit passages simply small parts of complex literary works that help expand how students in one of the state’s elite school districts think critically?
Those are the questions being debated in the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional School District, where there are competing petitions over the required reading lists for students. Some say the passages are too sexually explicit for high school teens. Others say striking these books from required-reading lists is censorship.
At the center of the discussion is the 1983 novel Cal by Bernard MacLaverty, described by USA TODAY as “a love story as affecting and tragic as you could want,” and the Ariel Dorfman play Death and the Maiden, recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1992.
Individuals on all sides of the issue say there’s a broader debate about what types of books high school students should read. In this case, both writings are steeped in explicit descriptions of sexual thoughts and conduct.
“I see it as a discussion that hopefully will become a scholarly discussion on do these books have merit and what is the merit,” said Rumson-Fair Haven Superintendent Pete Righi. “I am not entering the debate at this point because I feel the discussion is very healthy.”
Death and the Maiden has been required reading for all seniors for several years, Righi said. Cal has been on and off the required reading list for juniors over recent years, he said. It is not immediately clear why complaints are only surfacing now, though some parents said it wasn’t until a petition drive objecting to the works that they were made aware of what their teens were reading.
About 250 people signed an online petition asking that both books be removed from required-reading lists and replaced with more “age-appropriate texts.” Petition organizers, however, later shut down the petition and said they would bring their concerns to the district’s Oct. 13 school board meeting.
Objecting parents told the Asbury Park Press that they don’t want to ban the books; keeping them in the libraries is fine. What they don’t want is for them to be on the required-reading lists — a nuance some say takes their protest out from under the rubric of book banning.
“My feeling is once something is that graphic, is there not another book? Cal is not Hamlet. There are other books about oppression,” said Siobhan Fallon Hogan, the mother who discovered the passages reading the books while along with her son, now a senior, and brought the issue to the attention of other parents. “There comes a time when it’s time to make a better choice.”
Others in the community have circulated a competing petition. They say removing required reading still amounts to censorship.
“If that’s not a ban, I don’t know what is,” said Norm Dannen, a 2005 Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School graduate who started the competing petition after reading about the first one on Facebook. His petition is still active and had about 760 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. A number of the signers do not live in the area, but Dannen said the signers do have a connection to Rumson-Fair Haven either as alumni or residents in the area.
Dannen said he doesn’t recall reading either book when he was in school. But the literature lessons he had while at Rumson-Fair Haven helped shape how he and other students form their opinions now, he said.
“If you don’t take the time to wrestle with these ideas, how are you going to challenge the world?” he said.
“You need challenging ideas. You need to be challenged. At what point does that start? High school? College? When?”
Language is among the points considered when a team of teacher from the district’s English department selects books for the literature curriculum, Righi said. It’s balanced against books’ literary merit, artistic value, timeliness and universal themes, he said.
Teachers also consider what books might be appropriate for which grades, Righi said.
“These books are not taught to freshmen and sophomores for a reason,” he said. “Those things are all looked at.”
Rumson-Fair Haven is ranked among the top schools in New Jersey. Upwards of 97 percent to 98 percent of its students move on to two or four-year colleges, and most have taken at least one advanced placement course, Righi said.
But Hogan said parents shouldn’t be brought into discussion about book assignments by chance.
Hogan said she reads books her children are assigned in school so she can discuss the literary themes with them. Her idea was to reinforce at home the discussions they would already be having in schools.
A freshman reading assignment that contained the f-word raised her eyebrows, making her wonder if the school knew it was in the book. But she didn’t approach school officials until she saw another a book the following school year: Honky by Dalton Conley, published in 2001, a memoir about Conley’s childhood growing up as one of the few white children in a predominately black and Puerto Rican neighborhood.
It includes a passage in which a character devises a plot to determine if her husband was having an affair by weighing his genitals with her Weight Watchers scale.
After reading Cal last spring, then seeing Death and the Maiden on the summer reading list, Hogan decided to reach out to other parents.
First published in 1983, Cal is about a young Irish Catholic man involved in the Irish Republican Army who falls in love with the wife of a man murdered in an incident in which Cal was a getaway driver. It was described in the New York Times Book Review as “a marvel of technical perfection. . . . a most moving novel whose emotional impact is grounded in a complete avoidance of sentimentality.”
The final chapter describes intercourse between Cal and the widow in explicit detail. During the affair, Cal questions what would happen if the widow, Marcella, became pregnant. She assuaged him by saying she had “dusted off her diaphragm.”
Death and the Maiden is about Paulina, a former political prisoner who was raped by her captors. Years later, Paulina believes she has found her attacker — a man who drove her husband home after a flat tire. Paulina ties up her attacker and puts him on trial, with her husband acting as his attorney.
The play had its world premiere in 1991 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It ran on Broadway for five months in 1992.
“It was a fabulously powerful Broadway show,” Hogan said. “But it’s not age-appropriate.”
At the very least, the school should let parents know what kind of language will be in the books students are reading, Hogan said, noting she would not have known the language was in the book if she had not been reading her children’s assignments with them.
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