(Ed.'s Note: The following was sent to the BOE members and is printed here at the writer's request.)
I am writing as a concerned parent regarding this week's crisis over In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Having attended last week's board meeting (Sept. 19) and having read this book a few years ago, I feel compelled to comment in the hope of influencing your final decision.
With yesterday marking the beginning of National Banned Book Week, I cannot help but wonder if it will be a harbinger of tumultuous days ahead for Port Washington. For your background information, you may already know that In The Time of the Butterflies is an acclaimed novel nominated for The National Book Critics Circle Award of 1995. It is required reading in some of our neighboring high schools. The "danger" in this book is really in the eyes of the beholders.
Since last Tuesday night, I have tried to put myself in your places and imagine your feelings of responsibility for our children and the schools they attend. I sensed the board's uneasiness in banning a book at first, but I also saw the majority of you came to a very hasty decision, in the name of safety. I hope, with the intervening week, you have realized that this was an overreaction, and the appropriateness of this novel for our tenth grade English students is no longer in question. The childlike pencil drawing of a homemade bomb is no more dangerous to our children than any other curricular material our students have at their disposal. Although I heard some of you reject the label of "censor," that is in fact what you would become. I, like you, believe in the use of good judgment regarding the selection of reading material for students. The teacher does that in selecting a book for its literary merit, plot lines, subject matter, character development, etc. The teacher should not now have to imagine what evil thoughts may enter the minds of deranged individuals some time in the future and therefore not allow books with conflict, rage, fighting, or other unpleasant subjects. You and I may in fact reach opposite conclusions regarding this book, but at least we are free to do so, having been allowed to read it.
The aftermath of the Columbine tragedy has left so many of us paralyzed with fear and acutely aware of the potential for such disaster to occur anywhere, even here. In fact, in an attempt to respond to these fears, school districts have made rulings in which they overstepped their authority and trampled on the rights of students, all in the name of safety. Good intentions do not always yield good results. It seems to me these dynamics were at work last Tuesday. Your fears for our children are understandable; your remedy is not.
The potential for an action such as yours, banning a book, creates a firestorm of reactions because it means we can no longer take for granted our democratically guaranteed rights and freedoms. You have no doubt thought about this issue in a larger framework. It is at times such as these that we come to realize we cannot be completely safe and still live in a democracy. This issue goes to the heart of our deeply held values of freedom of expression, academic freedom and student and teacher rights. These rights have always come in conflict with public safety. This is not a new problem. We live in a free and open society, a democracy. In a democracy we have rights, responsibilities and some risks. I urge you to analyze your fears and motivations carefully in this case. Too often, throughout history people have mistakenly believed if they could make their kids safe, they would not really miss those individual freedoms. Having lived in a totalitarian country, I can assure you it was a very safe place, as long as you stayed in your place. This is too high a price to pay for the illusion of safety. We like to think we live in an enlightened community. We do not ban books here. The Nazis did that.
In closing, I hope my letter expresses an additional viewpoint and will help you arrive at a solution without violating anyone's rights. I cannot state it strongly enough, the "danger" in a book is a matter of opinion. Declaring something dangerous does not automatically make it dangerous. The making of a bomb is a fantasy/nightmare in someone's mind. Nothing has happened to justify denying this book a place in our curriculum.
Toula J. Halperin