Thursday, June 22, 2006

True story

(This is a story from my hometown and it's prompted by a comment Amanda made here yesterday. I wish my hometown newspaper were online so I could link to it—it filled practically an entire broadsheet when it ran several years back, although the length of article was mainly out of a desire to humiliate the newspaper in the neighboring county, but the following streamlined version covers the gist of the matter.)

It seemed to start with a book. A middle-school-aged girl came home from school one day and told her mother that her class was reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. When it was her turn to read aloud from the book, she said, she noticed that the passage contained a curse word.

She refused to read the word, she said. Her teacher said she had to say the word outloud, not skip over it. She refused again. The teacher took her to the principal's office and the principal also told her she had to say the word. The girl refused to let such a vile word pass her lips.

Now, what would you do if your child, or your hypothetical child, came home and told you this? Would you call the teacher? Would you call the principal? Would you call the mother of another child in the class to see if she could provide any collaboration of the story, another perspective to the story, before you called the school? I would have opted for the third due to my background in journalism and my own nonconfrontational tendencies; if I'm going to have to complain, I want my facts straight so that I don't humiliate myself in the process.

What the mother in this case did was call an out-of-state civil rights protection organization for Christians. She happened to have the phone number handy.

What the out-of-state civil rights protection organization for Christians did was write a letter to the Board of Education demanding apologies, and they sent a press release to the newspaper in my hometown and the one in the neighboring county.

While the newspaper in my hometown was contacting the Board of Education for more information on the matter, the one in the neighboring county was running the press release. The teacher—who also happened to be a Sunday school teacher-- and the principal—who happened to be married to a minister-- first learned they'd been accused of violating the girl's rights and were facing a possible lawsuit by what they—and all the members of their community—read in the paper in the neighboring county.

They were mortified.

By now the girl had decided to confess to her mother that she'd made up the entire story. No one had ever attempted to force her to read a curse word from a book aloud. She could offer no explanation for why she made up the accusations. I don't remember that it was reported she said she was sorry, although I assume she must have at some point whether stated or not; the article was really much more concerned, as I've said, with making the newspaper in the neighboring town look bad for running a press release as a news article.

Remember I said this story seemed to start with a book? I don't think it did. I grew up in a community very similar to the one this girl did, very close by, and there's no doubt in my mind that she'd had her own filled with many stories of Christian persecution both in her church and in her home; she'd done her share of Lottie Moon offerings.

The story starts there, in that vague feeling of wanting the persecution that happened elsewhere to happen to you here, to feel that your beliefs and values are important enough, worrisome enough to others, that they want to strip you of them.

As Amanda said yesterday, sometimes people set up their own persecutions.


  1. "and then there were the Salem Witch Trials...."

    gosh! check your facts people!!!

  2. Wow, what a story. Why didn't the mom ask the girl to show her the word in the book? That would have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble and humiliation.

  3. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if it contains any curse words, but I don't know any teacher in my hometown who'd force a kid (or want a kid) to read such words outloud in class (and I can remember trying so hard to get our teacher's assistant to read Harriet the Spy's "I'll be damned if I go to dancing school" outloud in 4th grade--we were all so convinced we could trick her into it and so so disappointed when she skipped right over it).

    I do wonder if the girl would have stuck to her story for as long as she did if the mom had said she was calling the teacher that first day. It still boggles my mind that she didn't try to learn why (or if)the teacher and principal had done what they were accused of before attempting to involve a legal aid organization. She must have been champing at the bit to use that phone number.

  4. This story made me feel sick to my stomach. I was a primary teacher here in England for seventeen years and now I train other people to do that wonderful job. My major area is Children's Literature and so inevitably this is a topic that comes up from time to time. We talk about the pros and cons of cutting out any 'offensive' words and recognise the fact that a different decision may well have to be taken in each school, but we don't yet have to face the extremes that your story and yesterday's article outline. The usual stance that I get from students here is that it depends on why the offending word has been used. If it is there simply to shock then cutting it out is probably right and you probably shouldn't be using the work of a writer prepared to do that anyway, but if the writer has used it to make a deliberate character point then it is valid. Surely what we are trying to do is develop children's ability to be critical readers? If we censor the material we teach without discussing that decision with our pupils, how are they ever going to learn to discriminate for themselves. I feel a soapbox coming on!

  5. Why does this story not shock me. This is the culture and environment we now live it and I don't see it changing anytime soon. As a parent she (I know I would have) gone to the principal and teacher to see if this was true. I cannot imagine any teacher (and the principal as well!) forcing a child to say out loud an offensive word. People need to chill out. I wonder if the child watches/is exposed to the daily news? I find that far more offensive than any stupid dirty word in a book.

  6. Wow, this story makes me so angry, but like danielle, I'm not really surprised. Our society is so fractured that there is no real discourse between parties of opposing viewpoints anymore. Instead of talking thier problems out, people prefer to call their lawyers first.

  7. I can only gues the idea came from the University of Utah theater student who wanted to alter the words in plays, so she , being a devout Mormon, would not have to swear. The professors said, no, when a play is performed, it has to be as written, and if you get a degree from here, but choose to alter your own lines, it reflects badly on the whole program.

    She sued.

    Last I heard, she lost.

    She could have just gone to BYU, and not had to deal with the issue at all.

  8. Correction,
    the U settled. Her name is
    Christina Axson-Flynn

  9. I have to confess that when I was 17 and in a school play there was a line I refused to say. It was very sexual and it was the only line in the play at all like it (and I knew my parents would be in the audience one night, which at 17 seemed like a major point). I had to debate my case a bit, but in the end the teachers agreed. Most schools now are super-sensitive to preserving a child's innocence (teachers here in the UK refuse to put sunscreen on children as they don't want to touch them). Your story is a good warning to all parents not to overreact but to check the facts first.


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