Book stirs controversy in Watauga County
Rick Houston, Special to the Recorder
May 20, 2014

Book stirs controversy in Watauga County

Book stirs controversy in Watauga County
Rick Houston, Special to the Recorder
May 20, 2014

Despite a county board of education vote to keep author Isabel Allende’s book The House of the Spirits in a sophomore honors English class at Watauga High School in Boone, the controversy that erupted over its use may not be over according to Chastity Lesesne. She is the parent who first protested the book.

The Watauga County Board of Education voted 3-2 Feb. 27 to allow veteran teacher Mary Kent Whitaker to teach the book, which contains more than 60 graphic portrayals of sexual activity and deviancy. Lesesne, who attends Alliance Bible Fellowship, insists that she is not against having the book in the school library or its use as an alternate reading selection. But, it is required reading, forcing its volatile content on impressionable students, she said

“We’re not finished yet, and [we’re] considering legal and political recourse,” Lesesne, a local parent, wrote in an e-mail. “No decisions finalized. We are praying about next steps.”

Lesesne says that while she and other supporters were told by one board member that he hated the book and would not want his 28-year-old son to read it, he turned out to be the deciding vote in favor of The House of the Spirits.

“He voted for the book because some parents wanted their child to read it,” Lesesne said in an e-mail. “He knew what was best for his own son but did not want to do what [was] best for all the other students. Yet, this is [this] board member’s responsibility. This is now his legacy.”

The issue began when Lesesne’s son expressed concern over the book. An initial meeting with Whitaker left her with little satisfaction. While an alternate selection of Moby Dick was offered, that would likely have meant reading it outside of class and little or no in-person instruction from the teacher.

Lesesne’s son was one of six who requested an alternate – two of the students remained in the classroom; three went to the library; and one chose to sit in the hallway to read. Other options were also eventually presented, including taking the honors class online.

Still, Lesesne felt her son was being isolated from his peers in Whitaker’s classroom.

“This is the only high school in our county, and this is the only sophomore honors English class in our county,” said Lesesne, the daughter of a Baptist pastor who homeschooled her son until the current school year. “So you can’t take another class unless you chose to opt out of the honors class. There was a feeling of feeling trapped, unfairness and not a lot of choices.”

Whitaker has been a teacher and educator for 37 years, and was the Watauga County Teacher of the Year in 2010-11 and one of 16 regional finalists for the statewide honor. She was not available for comment for this story, but instead provided a copy of one of her presentations on the matter.

“I do understand … I honestly do … that as a parent, you have personal guidelines as to what you want your child exposed to at age 15 and 16,” Whitaker wrote in the presentation. “The House of the Spirits does have content that deals with rape and torture. I do understand that you do not want your son exposed to this book.

“I also understand that other parents not represented here have objections to material that you consider acceptable. We are a diverse world. As an educational community, it is impossible to anticipate every objection that might arise from a parent. Since I’ve taught [more than] 3,000 students, I’ve interacted with at least that many parents – and they are all unique.”

The presentation noted that students who chose to leave the room during discussions of The House of the Spirits were outside the classroom for an average of 20 minutes during each 90-minute class period. Whitaker’s two children graduated from Watauga High School, and she appeared proud of the education they received there.

“I love my children, and I respect them, and I still sometimes want to shield them from the harshness of the world,” Whitaker added in her presentation.

“But honestly the education they received from Watauga High School, especially from the English department, has prepared them for dealing with the world – the beauty and the harshness.”

Lesesne felt a sense of urgency over the book’s introduction into the class, and within a week’s time not only read it but lined up meetings with the school principal, vice principal and county superintendent. She went before the board of education to file a formal challenge, and that led to a three-tiered process of deciding the book’s fate.

First, the book was approved for use by a committee comprised of teachers, school officials and a student.

“I became aware at that first meeting that this was about, unfortunately, no one could hear the actual issues that I was stating, because if they did say that they agreed with my concerns, they would be going against the teacher,” Lesesne said. “It became pro-teacher, anti-teacher, about the teacher, about the school.”

Second, a group appointed by the board of education also voted to keep it.

The third, last and most recent round took place Feb. 27 at a highly charged meeting of the five-member Watauga County Board of Education. The American Civil Liberties Union organized demonstrations in support of the book, while Lesesne had her own large contingent of supporters.

“The problem we have with it is that there doesn’t seem to be any standards in play that filter out inappropriate literature in the school system,” said Molly Northern, a member of Mount Vernon Baptist in Boone. “It’s almost as if the teacher has the say-so, and she is not accountable to anybody, doesn’t have to answer to anybody. I have a huge problem with that.”

Cliff Baldwin, another Mount Vernon member, was also concerned about the influence of the equally as controversial Common Core state standards. The House of the Spirits is included as an exemplar text in Common Core Curriculum Maps for English Language Arts, a 2011 book recommended by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction as a resource for meeting those standards, but not in an appendix to the standards themselves.

“The Common Core is the gateway that’s allowing this stuff in,” Baldwin said. “I don’t study Common Core in particular, but that’s come up several times when we parents object to the material they’re expecting our kids to read. They say, ‘Well, it’s all in keeping with the Common Core.’ The fact is, they’re still my kids, and I don’t think they should be reading it.”