Sunday, January 23, 2011

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it

News Herald Photo: Robert Cormier
speaks at Gulf Coast Community College
in February 1988.
PANAMA CITY — I met this week with a group of women who are putting together a plan to commemorate one of the darker times in their lives, when the community was divided over the appropriateness of certain books in our schools.
This year will mark the 25th anniversary of a controversy that put Bay County in headlines across the country and around the world. It started in 1986 with some books in a middle school teacher’s classroom library that a parent thought contained inappropriate content, and it continued in 1987 with the schools superintendent listing more than 60 books and plays to remove from student access.

Teachers fought to retain the books. Other teachers opposed them. The School Board held special meetings. Petitions were circulated and thousands signed them. Oprah had some of the participants on her show. Church members were bused to School Board meetings and spoke in tongues during the sessions.

Teachers received death threats. A fire was set under a TV reporter’s car.

The final outcome was a new School Board policy to review challenged books and other materials.

An outcome that no one seemed to expect at the time was that sales of the challenged materials increased during the controversy — one of the top local sellers in 1987 was “I am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier, which had started the whole controversy the year before, according to a News Herald article.

Ten years later, the books being challenged were those in the popular “Goosebumps” series — only this time, instead of raw language or “mature” situations causing consternation, it was a fear of children embracing the occult. The review process kept those books in classrooms, as it also kept “Of Mice and Men” in classrooms in 1997 after a local pastor objected to the racist slurs in the text.

The controversy continues. In 2008, the School Board voted 3-2 to remove Avi’s Newberry Award-winning “The Fighting Ground” from school libraries after a parent objected to language in the book.

I will moderate a discussion on censorship during the Books Alive festival of reading at Gulf Coast Community College on Feb. 5. Some of the panel members will include central characters in the banning controversy of 25 years ago. I encourage you to come out and participate, hear what they have to say and share your own thoughts.

As the good book says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Peace.

(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald for today's edition. To read a complete list of the books banned in Bay County in 1986 and 1987, click this link.)
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