By Jim Deatherage, Special to the Tri-City Herald
KENNEWICK -- He came up to me in the hall, handed me a worn copy of Sherman Alexie's award winning young adult novel, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and blurted, "This is the best freaking book I've ever read."
I didn't know the student and asked, "Who are you and how did you get this book?"
His answer would warm any English teacher's heart.
"I'm Jeff. You know Ryder, from fifth period? Well, he read it and gave it Kendall, who gave it to Jessica, and she gave it to me ... I thought you'd want it."
As a secondary English teacher for 42 years, this was yet another affirmation that Alexie's book was affecting the lives of students, even those not in my classes. Few books have elicited this kind of response from students. Comments from readers ranged from, "This is the first book I've ever read," to, "I've been there Mr. D, honest. It's my life story."
Richland School District's adopted theme for the ninth grade is heroism. Various assignments focus on individual heroism -- people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and persevering. Alexie's novel exemplifies the real-world obstacles all students face as they traverse the treacherous landscape of adolescence.
Anyone who has bothered to investigate Alexie's artistic credentials, in poetry, short stories, screen plays, and novels, cannot deny his literary mastery. Alexie received the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature for this "inappropriate" novel that caused so much fuss in Richland.
Some have questioned the purpose of literature in this discussion and it's a question worth entertaining. Most readers can cite books that changed their lives, ones that inspired and challenged them. Motivational speaker, Tremendous Jones, said, "Ten years from now you'll be different because of two things: the people you meet and the books you read."
Vicariously experiencing the migrant workers' struggles or the lives of young people caught in the web of terrorism, various texts provide students opportunities to discover who they are, what they believe and how to persevere.
A classroom is the best place to read and discuss these possibilities. A controlled environment, following district curriculum, ensures meaningful discussion and thoughtful considerations.
However, if board members or citizens feel they lack control or that they cannot trust teachers, then they are reduced to trying to control what teachers teach. Who gives this vocal minority permission to dictate what all students can or cannot read?
For years, Richland School District has done admirably with the "opt-out policy." Every teacher introduces a book's potentially "objectionable" material, including profanity, sexual content, violence, etc. Students are free to choose another book, without penalty or derision.
I challenge my students to make good choices, to honor their parents and not to feel wrong about responsibly choosing their reading assignments.
But some critics would go beyond the freedom to opt out of certain books and prohibit other students' right to read and discuss Alexie's book.
I piloted the novel for two years, securing over 60 student responses, following the district's instructional materials committee's format. The committee wasn't interested. It seems the pilot format had changed. Student input became meaningless as a result.
However, those rejecting the book seem to believe these young adults, some headed for foreign wars, are too immature to handle the book's content.
Apparently, there is a mistaken notion about what really goes on in a high school, on TV, the internet, etc. Is the world the way we want it to be? No. However, it is the way it is, and to think we're doing kids a favor by denying them a book that raises important questions about identity and overcoming life's travails, is an insult to students and to the community.
It was especially discouraging to witness the underhanded, manipulative motion to ban the book for all students, not just ninth-graders, after the instructional materials committee agreed by over 60 percent that the book was appropriate for tenth-graders and above.
As English philosopher Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph (of evil) is for good men to do nothing."
Maybe it's time for this community to do something.
Perhaps the upcoming school board election provides the perfect opportunity.
* Jim Deatherage is lifelong Kennewick resident. He retired this spring after 42 years teaching high school English.