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Westfield Parent Asks for Return to 'High Standards and Common Decency in Schools' in Letter

Resident discusses 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie as required reading for Westfield High School freshmen.

Some of you may be aware of a controversial book that has parents concerned in Westfield. This book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie can be found on our intermediate school library shelves and has become required reading for our freshmen high school students.

I am writing today not to stir the pot or finger point, nor to request a banning of this book, rather I would like to address what I feel is an even greater concern that we are facing today as parents and educators.

Most people would agree that our country’s film and music industry often, shall we say, “lacks etiquette.” It is not surprising that young adult fiction has rapidly followed suit. What is surprising is that many of our schools have succumbed to the influence by throwing their high standards to the wind and adopting these unsuitable works into their curricula. While it is apparent that the naïve and simple adolescent world of 'Nancy Drew' and 'The Hardy Boys' is virtually extinct, what has not been quite as evident is how far young adult fiction has descended from that world and has begun to infiltrate our schools.

These days if a novel happens to slip under a parent’s radar it could be a costly price for their child to pay, as the contents of many of these young adult novels deemed educational would distress any principled adult. It seems that the infliction of impropriety through the media has created an
overall deadening of the senses and has given way to the adaptation of an "anything goes" philosophy in many of our schools.

This new philosophy embraces the idea that an entertaining story that ends with a good message cancels out the fact that the young reader will be dragged through continuous perversities to arrive at that message. Any savvy parent or teacher should be able to recognize the futility of this objective. After all, we are dealing with kids who are not yet mature and tend to focus on the gross expletives and emulate them in writing. What you put into a child’s mind, he or she will gladly give back to you, as most children seek to please their parents and educators. This may seem like common sense but it is not a commonly shared philosophy in schools today.

On the contrary, schools are requiring that young children read these new age, graphic narratives filled with expletives. It is evident that they have not considered the potential devastation it will have over time on our children’s overall quality of learning, that is, if it hasn’t already. These books are replacing what could have been other great literary works of higher educational merit. Moreover, requiring children to read this style of writing within the walls of a school only validates the vulgarity they are constantly exposed to in the media, and gives credibility to the use of these expressions amongst their peers. This is precisely what parents are trying to counter on a daily basis, only to find that the schools are now working against them.

Furthermore, a story with a positive ending does not necessarily make for effective educative material, especially when minors are the recipients. For example, simply because a porn star is reformed doesn’t mean we should have children read the sordid details on his or her way to purity.

Simply because a prison mate has found religion doesn’t mean we should subject a child to reading how he beat his wife senseless on his way to his conversion. And just because a Native American took the initiative to leave a destitute reservation doesn’t mean a child should read about how he “sticks his d**k in trees” on the way out (p. 225 of Alexie’s Diary).

Adults who used to be responsible for the protection of a child’s exposure to indecency and vulgarity have become muddled by the age of insolence, and sadly, have become victims of it themselves. We have all become desensitized to some degree, but many have become so without even knowing it in view of the fact that they can’t see “dirt” even when they are shown.

Technology and the media’s lack of decorum may be largely to blame, but the time has come for parents and teachers to take a step back and seriously consider how far we’ve drifted and the direction we want for our schools. We are all trying to mold competent children of character and conscience, however no one feels more strongly about this than parents, and it behooves teachers to heed their advice, in more ways than one. 

Anna Githens

Westfield resident

Sophie February 17, 2012 at 02:28 AM
I don't know if Ms. Githens is a "housewife" or a "working mom", but it sounds like she is a mother who cares about the quality of her child's education. I applaud her for that. I don't know why anyone would criticize her for knowing what her child is reading in school. The Westfield Public Schools are outstanding, in part, because parents and educators work together to ensure that our students are receiving the very best in all areas of their educational experience. Parent involvement is vital. It is fine to disagree with Ms. Githen's opinion, but address her points in a constructive and respectful way. We can't instruct students to be open minded, or teach them to be critical thinkers if we demean and insult people who have different points of view.
Nemo February 17, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Nobody literate doubts that since the naturalist movement, there has been a lowering and vulgarizing of the language, imagery and subjects of literature. A long slide culminating in the incoherence of James Joyce and the grotesque filthiness of William Burroughs. It’s blindingly obvious. Ms. Githens, has identified a real problem and stated it in clear terms that anybody can understand. But, most commenters respond like they own stock in the publisher of Alexie’s Diary or do PR for the teachers' union. I see no concern for young minds. It strikes me as heartless and irrelevant. Adolescence is when the human mind and spirit are in an explosion of creative potential. It is precisely the time when the mind should be pointed at the stars and beyond. But living as we do in the age of Archie Bunker and Piss Christ, our eyes are focused on the neighbor's dirty laundry. For those reading here that DO read: There is Ayn Rand's essay The Comprachicos and Victor Hugo's novel The Laughing Man, on which it was based. It is stupid and unspeakably cruel to offer the young mediocrity and vulgarity just when they need and can still understand the ideas, language and imagery of the great dreamers. At least there are still a few like Ms. Githens, who will defend the young's birthright to the treasure trove of western culture, and their right to stand on the shoulders of giants, there to grow their own wings and fly past the limits of our imaginations.
Mariana February 17, 2012 at 04:46 AM
It's pretty obvious from your name calling and crass attitude that you spend so much of your time watching Family Guy. In your opinion what could be more productive than being a conscientious parent? Fortunately there are many of them in Westfield. Why are you so angry about a book that really doesn't concern you? It's as if your whole identity is attached to it. Maybe your parents weren't around for you.
Stewie February 17, 2012 at 12:11 PM
Can anyone Find Nemo's sense of humor? And Peter and Lois were always there for me and trusted my judgement to read the books my teachers gave to me in High School- especially the National Book Award winners. Giggly, Giggly
Anna GetAGrip February 17, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Ms. Githens I would like to commit on this letter, but I have to stop my clock from chiming... cuckoo... cuckoo
Tonto February 17, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Me Think Mrs. Githens Misguided.
Librarian February 19, 2012 at 02:24 PM
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/05/should-book-covers-shield-young-adult-readers-from-the-world/
WHS Student '13 February 19, 2012 at 04:20 PM
I'm pretty sure 99% of us started masturbating and making dirty jokes at an earlier age than this book is directed towards. Your argument is invalid.
Michaela Tropeano February 20, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Assuming that Ms. Githens had good intentions in sharing her opinion on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” I must say that I find her perspective to be a bit sheltered. I am a junior at Westfield High School and though I did not read the book in my freshman year, I believe that I am qualified to offer an extension of what my fellow students have expressed in their individual responses. After reading Ms. Githens’ letter, I felt belittled by her remark that my peers and I are, “not yet mature,” and quite offended by being called a “child.” I was also completely disturbed by the fear that I sensed in her tone, fear of adolescent exposure to issues that are absolutely prevalent in our lives, despite what some of our adult counterparts may want to believe. Are we so afraid of the truth that we will turn a blind eye to issues that are relentlessly affecting our youth? Without publications like this one, adolescents would feel lonely and confused by the changes they are facing and perhaps even, “dirty” because what they are experiencing is censored by the people they look to for strength and answers: their parents. Though it is understandable that a parent may be concerned for the well being of their son or daughter, it is this kind of protest that has fostered the disconnection between youth and adults for centuries.
Kelly Mc Mannis February 20, 2012 at 02:20 AM
Speak for yourself WHS Student '13!
Steve February 20, 2012 at 03:40 AM
There is a good time to lie, and there is a bad time. The notion that a 6 year old child and a high school freshmen are at all similar to frankly offending to the latter party. There is NO way any similarity between Santa Claus and what really happens to teenagers. What happens when you don't expose your child to the realities of our world? Whether they go to college one day, or get a job your child will learn about the reality. You cannot keep your children sheltered forever. You may think you are doing them a favor by shielding them from the bad things that happen in the world, but ultimately you are creating another misinformed person.
Billy C February 20, 2012 at 03:50 AM
It is completely ridiculous to try and shelter kids in this way in our day and age. Unless you want to ban the internet from Westfield your goal of banning one book is completely pointless. It is no longer the 50's. I understand this may be hard for mature readers to understand but the current year is 2012. We can actually talk about social issues such as Native American Racism and we can read expletive words in books and it isn't going to hurt anyone. The only possible outcome is an expanded mind which should of course be the goal of our school system. By attempting to censor this book from our schools you are trying to live in the past. Furthermore, Kelly Mc Mannis. Michaela wrote her response in a respectful way and you then equated her opinion to believing in Santa Claus. It really makes me wonder who the child is in this situation.
Tara Sciortino February 20, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Frankly, all the recent buzz over this book, both good and bad, has made me want to read it myself. And I'm sure there have been similar reactions amongst other people reading this thread. So, thanks, I guess, to all of you who've brought my attention to a novel I probably wouldn't have otherwise read.
Everyone February 20, 2012 at 05:11 AM
Kelly Mc Manis, I just flagged your comment as inappropriate because honestly you disgust me. You could have made your case logically, but instead you were immature and aught to be ashamed of yourself. I hope for your children's sake that you don't treat them the way you treat any high-schooler with whom you disagree. You should really apologize.
South Westfielder February 20, 2012 at 03:55 PM
While I diagree with censorship and shielding kids from learning he harsh realities of life, people at age 14, 15, 16 are not "young adults", they are still children.
South Westfielder February 20, 2012 at 04:00 PM
@Tangerine, what a stupid, ignorant statement about why Catholic schools were invented. Ruins the rest of your argument.
Justin Cafiero February 21, 2012 at 04:13 AM
I think that no one should be telling anyone what they should or should not read. If a parent feels uncomfortable to let their children read an inappropriate book, then so be it. If so, email the teacher and I'm sure the teacher will provide a different assignment for the student. However, no school or community should ever have to go to great lengths to ban a book. Not everyone has the same beliefs so a one-size fits all policy would not be effective
Tara Sciortino February 21, 2012 at 05:29 AM
Also Mike, your comment is rude, uncalled-for and counterproductive to this "discussion" that is supposed to be on the content of Alexie's novel. Michaela never claimed to be " an expert on age appropriateness*", she was simply an intelligently stating her opinion. So please, enough with the insensitive, attacking comments.
Tara Sciortino February 21, 2012 at 05:30 AM
And* intelligently
Michaela Tropeano February 21, 2012 at 06:04 AM
Mike! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my comment; I am thrilled that I roused such an intense response from you! In reply to your first question, I meant that publications like the one being discussed give adolescents something to relate to so they don't feel so odd and uncomfortable about the inevitable changes they are experiencing in this rather unpredictable stage of life. Also I would like to clarify that I am not an expert in "age appropriateness*," and I apologize if you got the impression that I was claiming to be one. I am also sorry if my point of view implied that I wanted to "uncensor everything and make it available to everyone at every age so we can have more anxious kids on medication." In fact, I even made note of the truth that the people reading this book are not "children," they are young adults who should be, in my opinion, educated on the issues discussed in the "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."
WHS Student '13 February 22, 2012 at 11:10 PM
You really think you know everything, don't you? What are you then, the 1% that didn't do either one of the things that I previously mentioned? You're better off not saying anything, because you haven't had a single valid point yet.
Alex Jeffery February 23, 2012 at 02:39 AM
I understand Mrs. Githens intentions, however, as a junior at Westfield High School, I am moved to state my piece in opposition to her argument.Though it was not required reading my Freshman year, I have read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian." I found it to be an intriguing piece of literature that introduced many topics that are ever-present in the lives of adolescents in the 21st century. I believe that the current issue is not the issue of a parents disagreement with the book; in fact, I completely understand why this book would stir up an emotional response in a parent. It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that someone's "baby," is discussing such topics as masturbation and sex. However, does that make the topic irrelevant to the lives of the majority of teenagers at Westfield High School? I think not. Furthermore, I believe that preventing a teacher from teaching an extremely well written piece of literature that is, again, actually relevant to the lives of Westfield High School students, would be a grave error. If a parent takes issue with their child reading this book, they must also take issue with health class, and should speak to the school about getting their child exempt from the class, and this book. But preventing healthy discourse in an English classroom on a piece of literature is detracting from the true meaning behind education. Again, I appreciate Mrs. Githens point, and look forward to further healthy discourse on the topic.
Alex Jeffery February 23, 2012 at 02:44 AM
You're argument is well reasoned "nemo." However, I find that, in order to "grow their own wings and fly past the limits of our imaginations," students must be completely well-rounded in their educations. That does, in fact, include masturbation, and other somewhat unpleasant topics (though they need not be). Book banning is not a solution to any such moral degradation; rather, it presents another slew of problems, including but not limited to sheltering children and oppression. Where is the line on where we can stop telling our kids what they can and cannot read? My parents never told me I couldn't learn about a topic or read a book, and I believe that I am a more well-rounded person because of it. Again, thank you for your well-reasoned argument.
disappointed February 24, 2012 at 02:25 AM
the masturbating scene is a bit much... however accurate.
Chief Anna says Bull February 24, 2012 at 09:38 PM
I would like to see Ms. Githens and Mr. Holier than Thou Crenshaw last one day on the reservation. The book is awesome, the teacher is awesome, the kids reading the book get the social injustice message. If a little masturbation ruins your day- then you have bigger problems to face.
Kerin February 26, 2012 at 07:29 PM
Tangerine, FL how about a grammar lesson. I not i. :)
Kerin February 26, 2012 at 07:33 PM
How about everyone realizes that school protocol was broken by not following the steps to add a new book to the required reading list mid year? Why does everyone overlook this very important oversight by all teachers and administrators involved in this discussion? Where is the Supervisor of Language Arts K-12 and teachers involved to explain the steps involved so this situation does not occur again. Was the syllabus for 9th Grade Language Arts updated and redistributed with a permission slip to the parents asking for their approval to introduce the text? Was the Supervisor approach with the idea and spoke to about the pro's and con's? All of this could have been avoided with style and grace.
Kerin February 26, 2012 at 07:39 PM
It would be lovely if all of the students taking the time to respond to this topic participated in class with such enthusiasm!
Michelle Maurer February 28, 2012 at 10:00 PM
I have read through Ms Githens letter a couple of times now. What's with all the attacks?? The poor woman wrote a sincere, well thought out opinion about her concerns as a parent and so many want to crucify her for it. You don't have to agree with her, but all the vitriol aimed her way makes me wonder if just maybe she is right! Michelle
karen egert October 01, 2012 at 11:54 AM
I just found this blog( 9 months later) . I am a liberal democrat and being offended by offensive material that your child reads as part of his English class isn't liberal or conservative-- it is common sense.So please don't generalize about "Democrats" I have very liberal and progressive political views, but do not allow my children to curse-- and I apply the same standards to myself. In fact, if I slip up , I give my kids a dollar if I use a curse word. Call me old fashioned that way-- but to me it is plain and simple -- manners With so much wonderful material to choose from , I think it is irresponsible to pick a book that pushes kids over the edge -- or in this case subjects them to unnecessary violence and sexual images if it is presented in a way that is over the top graphic. I do agree we have to be careful as not to throw that baby out with the bathwater, but as the mother of a high school junior, I appreciate that this mother expressed her views in an articulate and non- judgmental fashion. Now when we start banning books on Evolution like they want to do in some southern states-- then we certainly have problems. I don't let me 20 year old and his girlfriend sleep in the same room when she visits. To me , it is just respect-- and it has NOTHING to do with my political leanings. I agree with Anna Githens and would have said the same under those circumstances. .

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