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Controversial book to remain in Marietta curriculum

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” a work of literature by Margaret Atwood, narrowly survived a challenge to be removed from the Marietta City Schools curriculum Tuesday morning.

The item was placed on the agenda of a special board meeting, which originally was called to hear a presentation by members of the Ohio School Boards Association.

Inclusion of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a new curriculum for juniors and seniors at Marietta High School came under fire from two members of the public, both former school district employees, at the regular board meeting last week. The new curriculum, written by teachers, replaced the long-standing junior and senior English textbooks with an array of 11, one-semester courses based on specific works or types of writing. A study of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was one of the courses, but students also have other options, including the lesser known works of Shakespeare, creative writing, the works of Stephen King and the poetry of Bruce Springsteen.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985 and depicted a world in which religious leaders have absolute authority and women are for the most relegated to roles of servitude and reproduction. It includes strong language and disturbing scenes of oppression and sexual violence. The book has seen a recent resurgence in public attention because of contemporary events.

District curriculum director Jona Hall urged the board to look past the complaints and view the value of the book as an entirety and as an asset for teaching.

“This is a book that elicits conversations, about what happens when the government takes this kind of control, that is the purpose of this book,” she said. “It was popular in the 1980s because of the rise of feminism … she didn’t write about anything that hasn’t already happened.”

Board member Stacey Hall said she recalled studying other controversial writing such as “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, in high school.

“Our teacher taught this book, and he didn’t hold anything back,” she said. “My feeling is that suppressing this would be censorship.”

“We already are teaching books that have been banned elsewhere,” Hall said.

English Language Arts teachers Meradeth Bidwell and Joe Rabbene spoke to the board about their choices in developing the curriculum.

“We give students choice, these are elective courses. Dystopian literature really appeals to adolescents. The point of it is, how does an ideal society go wrong?” Bidwell said.

“The fundamental question is, what is the purpose of teaching literature?” Rabbene said. “It’s the human conversation, what binds us as a society, to get kids to think about themselves, their relationships to others and to society.”

Board president Doug Mallett, who brought the matter before the board, said part of his concern is that teaching the book might amount to an endorsement of it.

“I appreciate your mission,” he told the teachers, “but I’m concerned about the vulgarity. It might be real, but people may get the impression that we think that’s OK. I like that it’s thought-provoking, but I’m not feeling real good about this.”

Board member Mark Duckworth also expressed opposition to teaching a course that involved the book.

“Profanity isn’t needed to make people think,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way than this.”

“We live in a profane world, and that might not be reflected in our houses, but I don’t think we can clean up literature that makes us uncomfortable and have it keep its meaning,” said board member Russ Garrison.

Board member Bill Hutchinson struggled with the issue.

“I’m torn,” he said. “I’m conservative when it comes to language, although I’m not a prude. It means a lot to have the teachers come and explain this, and I think it’s up to the professionals to tell us what to teach.”

Mallett said he wanted to poll the board on the issue. Superintendent Will Hampton added a warning before the vote was taken.

“If we select this on the basis of profanity, then that opens a door, and we don’t know what else might be behind it,” Hampton said. Earlier conversation had alluded to other books that included discomforting language, such as “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck.

Duckworth put forward a motion to remove “The Handmaid’s Tale” from the curriculum “due to vulgarity and profane language” and find another way to teach the issues it examines. The motion was seconded by Mallett.

Mallett and Duckworth voted in favor of the motion, and Garrison, Hall and Hutchinson voted against it. The book remains on the curriculum.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

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