‘The book’ divides parents, students in Watauga

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BOONE, N.C. – A months-long drama over a book being taught in Watauga High School’s sophomore honors English class reached a swell at Monday night’s meeting of the Watauga County Schools Board of Education.

The challenge, brought by a parent to remove Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” from the class’ required reading list, has grown since originally filed in October.

Twice retained by review committees, the debate has now moved into the third step of the appeal process – a hearing before the school board.

The board will decide the fate of the award-winning novel, a fictional account of a family trying to navigate the post-colonial social and political upheavals of Chile, during a hearing at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 at the Education Center.

“For months it’s just been known as ‘the book,’” said Jeff Shellman, who has three young child in the Watauga County Schools.

On Monday night, supporters and opponents of the book were allowed to speak before the board for informational purposes.

It generated so much interest beforehand that the meeting was moved from the smaller Education Center, where the board’s meetings are normally held, to the 500-seat high school auditorium. It was nearly filled.

The meeting brought out students, parents and community members passionately pro- or con-“the book.”

“We want age-appropriate material to be used in our children’s classrooms,” said Ken Sevensky, a parent.

Public comments were limited to 10 per side, three minutes per person. Many students in the crowd to support the book – and their teacher, Mary Kent Whitaker – wore matching blue shirts to make a statement.

“It’s one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking books of my high school career,” said Kauner Michael, a junior who read the book last year. He presented the board a petition with the signatures of 375 students who support keeping the book in the curriculum.

Those opposing the book got a boost as well – support from Franklin Graham, the evangelical founder of Samaritan’s Purse. The Boone-based nonprofit employs 350 people.

Graham gave those with children in school permission to leave work early if necessary to attend the meeting.

“As a parent and grandparent, I’m very concern about what our children are asked to read and, in some cases, forced to read,” Graham said a statement.

The book was challenged by parent Chastity Lesesne in October for its “pornographic and torturous content.”

The book deals with difficult topics like torture and rape, but does not glorify them, said Whitaker, the teacher at the heart of the controversy.

Whitaker, a 34-year teaching veteran, said this is the best unit she’s taught.

“It broadens their global view so much she said.

The book was chosen from a list of suggestions given out by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction during a training session for the new Common Core curriculum. Alternatives are available for students who don’t want to read the book; for six students chose to read “Moby Dick” as an alternate book last year.

Whitaker said she doesn’t want to take “The House of the Spirits” off of her required reading list because she’s afraid of the message it sends.

“I don’t want (other teachers) to feel like they can’t teach what they should teach,” Whitaker said.

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