Some Salem High students and their parents were surprised when the novel Waterland was pulled from an advanced-placement English class last week. Jeremy Hughes, Plymouth-Canton Schools' interim superintendent, said he made the decision without following district rules, because he was "personally shocked and offended" by the book. He said one parent complained and he thought the novel, by celebrated English author Graham Swift, would upset others.
Debbie Piotrowski, said when she heard this happened to her daughter's class, she felt sad, frustrated and disgusted — and emailed the district to say so. Piotrowski said the move is a form of censorship.
"I completely disagree with how this was handled," she said in an email to Canton Patch. "There are rules and protocol that should be followed and in an AP class, college-level reading should be expected."
Novel an English classic
Waterland, a classic 1983 novel, is the story of a history teacher facing a crisis after his wife kidnaps a baby. The teacher decides to tell students the story of his life, the history of his hometown -- and its most prominent family -- and the complex relationships among them all. The book is used throughout schools in Britain. Waterland depicts one sexually explicit scene and some sexual metaphors but is essentially the story of how the past is intertwined with the present, said Gretchen Miller, the Salem High teacher whose students were affected.
Plymouth-Canton Educational Park teachers have used Waterland for at least eight years as an example of "post-modern narrative structure, new historicism (a field of literary criticism) and the theme of trauma," Miller said.
Swift's work is described as poetic and lyrical by scholars from France to the United States; Waterland was a finalist for the Booker Prize, which was awarded to Swift for the next novel he wrote. In 1992, Waterland was turned into a feature film, starring Jeremy Irons.
Hughes responded to Piotrowski's email with a note that said, in part, "Yes, there IS a process by which parents can file a formal complaint about a book or piece of instructional material. I admit that I jumped over this process in asking that the book be removed from the curriculum. That process will be honored for any similar circumstances that arise."
The district does inform parents whose students are taking advanced-placement classes that they will be encountering mature material. Parents and students can ask to opt out of study areas if they are uncomfortable.
Miller has used Waterland for two years as part of a year-long English class which results in college credits for most students. She said she first learned about the book being pulled from her class when her boss instructed her to remove them.
Miller said the parent who complained did not approach her until after the book had been removed. She said students were about one-third into the novel and she has since been substituting excerpts of other books to help illustrate the literary principles the course is designed to teach.
Laura Flack said her daughter is a Canton High School junior and in the class.
"Although I haven't read Waterland, I don't agree with banning books," Laura Flack wrote in an email to Canton Patch, adding that she signed a petition asking the district to stop banning books. "What is the criteria for banning a book? Who gets to make that decision? Is it one person's opinion? Everyone sees things differently; where will it stop?"
Flack said her daughter and other students were upset about the decision and "if a student decides to take AP English, they should be prepared to read more adult material."
District allows controversial material
Plymouth-Canton Community Schools has a policy supporting the teaching of controversial subjects but gives parents and students the opportunity to ask for alternatives.
The school district's policy defines a controversial issue as one which has opposing points of view that are "likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community" but states the board of education believes that the consideration of such issues "has a legitimate place in the instructional program of the schools."
District guidelines allow for the teaching of controversial material as a way of teaching students critical thinking skills. But those guidelines also indicate students should be mature, the material relevant to the course of study and that adequate time is allowed "to examine the issue fairly." The district policy states that teachers who express personal opinions about controversial issues must be clear that their opinions are their own and cannot tell students what to think about a subject, or demean a student who disagrees.
"I strongly feel that rules are put in place so that the opinion, morals and/or religious beliefs of one are not allowed to speak for all," Piotrowski wrote in an email to Canton Patch. "For (Hughes) to assume that because one parent came forward and he also didn't like what he read that an 'overwhelming number of parents' would come forward is presumptuous. It is also wrong for one to use one's position to flagrantly disregard protocol."
Hughes on Saturday told Canton Patch he was comfortable with his choice and did not expect the book to be returned to the classroom or reviewed again by the district.
In the author's own words
Swift, who lives in London, could not be reached for this story. However, he once asked, in writing, "Where else can you combine so richly and intimately the world of ideas with the world of concrete reality? And where else can you know — or at least hope — that for each individual reader, each act of collaboration between author and reader, the experience will be something different? I have enormous faith in that invisible collaborative experience, though when I write I never think of the reader. Fiction seems to me only to do in a specialised, concentrated way what we all need to do: to enter, in our minds, experiences other than our own. That is no small or simple thing — all our moral and social pretensions rest upon it."