The Rev. Nathan Slaughter called for the removal of WHALE TALK from Missouri Valley High School 10th grade curriculum in local press reports. He called it "war" on his personal blog (now unavailable).
Many of the facts were misrepresented in Slaughter's statement.
First, he said the book was "required reading," with no alternative book available for parents who objected. "Requiring the reading should not be done at the expense of parents who wish to minimize their children's exposure to this material," he said. He also called the book "trash."
Second, he said "most parents" objected to the book and demanded it be removed from the 10th grade curriculum. But more than a dozen students and parents told us teacher Leo Bertelsen warned of the book's gritty passages and offered other options to anyone who didn't want to read it. These parents and students wrote to express their support for both Bertelsen and WHALE TALK.
Several students even started a petition drive to restore their First Amendment rights and finish the book. We applaud those students for standing up for their beliefs, just as we respect the students who asked to be excused from reading WHALE TALK.
On March 6, the committee appointed to review WHALE TALK voted to recommend keeping it in library circulation and as an option for 10th grade curriculum.
On March 12, the school board voted 3 to 2 to retain the book in the school library and as possible curriculum to 10th, 11th and 12th grade students as long as an alternative title was offered to students and parents who objected.
We are pleased with this outcome, and thank the board members for trusting their teachers to do what they were trained to do -- teach. But beyond that, Chris would like to say thank you to the people of Missouri Valley.
He received so many wonderful letters praising the book and his statement to the city and Rev. Slaughter (see below), he is truly grateful.
What's best for the kids and their parents was clearly at the heart of the school board's ultimate decision. Bravo, Missouri Valley. Bravo.
Hello. My name is Chris Crutcher. You may have heard of me. My book Whale Talk and the teacher using it in his classroom have recently come under fire from Pastor Slaughter at the Missouri Valley Church of Christ. The pastor and I have recently had email correspondence, and I was lead to believe his part in the controversy was relatively low key. Then I found a copy of his original letter to the editor.
So here’s mine. I spent ten years as a teacher and then director in a small k-12 alternative school in Oakland, California back in the seventies, then began working as a therapist with families involved in child abuse and neglect for the eighties and much of the nineties. Though I only do a little of that work now, I’m still chairperson for the Spokane Child Protection Team, consulting with social workers on particularly difficult cases. I say that only to let you know where many of my stories come from. Real life. Hard times.
What Pastor Slaughter neglected to mention after scanning the early pages of my book is that the language is reflective of a vicious racist character in the story, and when the five year old girl who has lived in the verbal (and sometimes physical) crosshairs of that character gets into a play therapy session, she screams them out to let the world know what her world is like. It’s a cry for help that gets answered.
The pastor’s tactic of giving you the harsh language completely out of context is a time honored one. Believe me, I know. That, along with his call for the teacher to be publicly chastised (“The teacher involved should put forth a formal apology to the three groups the school has promised in their own words to support”) is, in my opinion, nothing more than thinly veiled bullying. And like most bullying, it’s ill informed.
In his email he assured me he didn’t want public visibility, that this was for a greater cause. Yet no one who has contacted me about this issue doesn’t know his name. I have a feeling this is one of those issues that could have been settled quietly. I know there is some argument regarding whether or not the kids were told they could select an alternative book, but I’m guessing the offended kids or parents could have walked into the teacher’s room, stated their complaints and had a different book assigned. I don’t know the teacher involved, but I haven’t been in a school in this country in the past ten years where that isn’t true, and I visit at least fifty schools per year.
When Pastor Slaughter says the themes in the book are not for your tenth grade students, I wonder whether he even knows what the themes are, having read (by his own admission to me) only the first third- to half of the book. What seems to have offended him was language. A lot of that language offends me, too, in the sense that there are people out there being talked to like that. If we really believed that merely hearing, or reading, that language does as much damage as Pastor Slaughter intimates, we would put monitors in the halls and all over the school grounds and expel anyone who uses it. And in most cases we would be expelling the pearls of our youth.
After quoting as much “bad” language as he could in nineteen lines, Pastor Slaughter asked in his letter to the editor what the class discussions must “sound like?” I allowed my imagination to go there. I imagined the teacher and the kids agreeing to be respectful in their discussion. I imagined them talking about what a horrible life was being lived by the girl in the eye of that racist hurricane. I imagined anger and rage that it happens, and I imagine dealing with some solutions. That sounds dangerously close to my idea of good education.
It bothers me that Mr. Slaughter feels the need to “protect” the members of his church from stories like this and language like this and pays no attention to the kids who live those lives. All of you know kids who grow up in hate. They sit in the classrooms of our schools, distrustful, betrayed; feeling like second-class citizens whose lives don’t matter. When folks like Mr. Slaughter call for censoring their stories, they don’t realize they are censoring the kids themselves. “Your life isn’t worth being talked about. We don’t care what you feel like; we just want you to behave. Don’t rub off on our kids."
Whatever happened to “the least of my brethren?” What ever happened to leaving the flock to save the one lamb in peril? Mr. Slaughter heads a far less courageous church than the one I grew up in.
The pastor teaches out of a book that promotes love and forgiveness as well as any book ever written. It also calls for the killing of homosexuals, describes adultery, lying betrayal and all kinds of violence. I’m guessing he doesn’t have an alternate book for those readers who take issue with those things. My own pastor, when I was in high school, sat me down and talked with me about the times in which those things occurred and were written, and worked with me to understand the majesty of the book. I’m not comparing Whale Talk with The Bible, but the process opened up discussion that put my pastor on the short list of people to turn to in any of my many adolescent crises.
I have a feeling I haven’t said anything most of you don’t already know, whether you agree with me or not. In his email to me, Pastor Slaughter said the parents of your community “have had problems in the past of being isolated and made to feel stupid for questioning things.” He didn’t necessarily want me to repeat that, but after he called my book “filth” I didn’t see a lot of reason to honor that particular wish. I grew up in a town about a third the size of yours. We called ourselves “hicks” and sometimes felt “less than” kids from the larger more cosmopolitan towns down around Boise and Nampa. But there was plenty of wisdom in that town, as I’m sure there is in yours; plenty of capability for rational thinking and for making connection with our youth.
What I would encourage you to do, rather than censoring the book, is listen to your kids’ responses to it. And for you kids, stand up and let the adults of your community know who you are. For some reason our culture makes it hard for adolescents and adults to communicate, but that doesn’t need to be.
Should the school board decide to censor the book, let me make some recommendations for others that should also go. Start with all mine. Then take out Pulitzer Prize winners To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple. Huckleberry Finn has to go. Walter Dean Myer’s stunning book of a young man going to war (how much more timely could that be) Fallen Angels had better be cleared out also. The list goes on and on.
Thank you for your attention, and when I’m close to your community I’d be more than happy to take an extra day and talk with some of you, whether you agree with me or not. We all want the best for our kids.