Parent complains piece is inappropriate; teacher says 'Stories for Men' challenges studentsSeaside - A Seaside High School English teacher has pulled reading material from her science fiction class after a parent complained the content bordered on pornography.
The work, John Kessel's "Stories for Men," won the James Tiptree Junior Award, an honor for science fiction and fantasy writing. Kessel's piece uses a utopian society to challenge notions of what men and women are.
Teacher Jan Priddy said she warned students about the content - which contains swear words and sexual references - before assigning it. She gave students the option of reading another piece, Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger."
About half the class elected to study Twain instead.
"It's not my job to make parents uncomfortable," said Priddy, who has 15 years of teaching experience. "It's my job to challenge students."
Kathy Wilson's 14-year-old daughter brought the Kessel piece home to read over the weekend and to prepare for a test. The material made her feel uncomfortable so she told her mom. She said she had to read that particular piece and did not mention another option.
"The more I read into it, the more nauseated I got," Wilson said. "There are things in there at 43 I'm not even comfortable with reading."
Wilson said she was appalled the material was handed out in class.
"Some parents might think I'm a prude, but until you read the content of the article you have no idea at all," she said.
Wilson spoke with high school Principal Don Wickersham about her concerns, although she has not filed a written complaint, which is required for the schools to go through the formal process to reconsider instructional materials and resolve controversial matters.
"I read and thought parts were inappropriate for high school students to read," Wickersham said. He discussed the matter with Priddy, and she decided to remove the material. The novella is no longer being used in the class curriculum.
Wilson said that even though Priddy has pulled the Kessel piece, she is still concerned that the school hasn't notified parents that the material was passed out in class. "I'm sure there are several parents out there who have no idea, and if it was my child, I would want to know," she said.
Wickersham said teachers who plan to use short stories, articles or movies that might be questionable need to clear material with the building administrator before it is used - a districtwide policy. Larger works and textbooks that are staples of the curriculum are cleared through the school board and required to meet evaluative criteria set out by Oregon Department of Education, Superintendent Doug Dougherty said
Priddy said she spoke with an administrator two years ago before using the Kessel piece. Wickersham said he doesn't remember it receiving approval.
Priddy has taught the science fiction course three times and has used the Kessel piece all three times. This year's class is younger than others, she said. The first year was all seniors with a couple of juniors, while this year freshmen and sophomores are also enrolled.
Priddy has never had a parent call her about the piece, although students have elected not to read it.
"I had a girl last year who told me her parents were troubled by it and I said 'Don't read it,'" she said.
Priddy said she knows some students and families might have a tough time with "Stories for Men," especially if they only glance at it.
"If you skim the piece looking for objectionable words you'll find it," she said. "You have to read the whole thing from start to finish if you want to understand what it's about. You don't toss the dictionary because it has words you don't approve of."
Priddy said SHS teachers cover other controversial works, including "The Catcher in the Rye," "Of Mice and Men," "Lord of the Flies," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Old Man and the Sea."
"There's nothing worth reading that isn't controversial," she said. "Anything that stirs the imagination, anything that is going to make you think is going to needle you in some way."
However, there are some authors she has elected not to teach, such as Tennessee Williams.
"He's too depressing for me," she said. "I don't find any redeeming value in that. Teenagers often feel that by themselves; they don't need help."
Ursula Le Guin, Ray Badbury, Isaac Asimov and Molly Gloss, an Oregon author who recommended the Kessel piece for use in Priddy's classroom, are other authors Priddy plans to use this semester.
It is unlikely Priddy will use "Stories for Men" in her classroom again, which she said is a pity.
"(Students) can read things they disagree with and gain from it, and they can read things they agree with and not grow at all," she said.
Molly Mayhead, professor of speech communication at Western Oregon University, said works with sexual content, racial issues, language and political or religious viewpoints are "frequently" challenged in schools.
According to the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, which collects statistics on attempts to remove or restrict works, there were 6,364 challenges between 1990 and 2000. Seventy-one percent of the challenges were to materials in schools or school libraries.
Mayhead, who teaches a class on first amendment cases, said she believes many teachers censor what literature they use in the classroom because they're reluctant to teach something that's controversial.
"Personally I think there just needs to be more open-mindedness and tolerance for all written work," she said.