School Board Votes, 3-2, To Allow 'Gilgamesh' In Class

Panel Says Book Meets 'Community Standards' Despite Sexual Reference

March 24, 1991|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff writer

They crowded the board room for English teacher Dottie Farley. She had come to appeal an educator's decision to remove "Gilgamesh," considered the world's oldest surviving work of fiction, from the world literature classes of Carroll high schools.

Teachers and students, some carrying copies of the epic poem, presented the school board withpetitions asking that Herbert Mason's translation of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" not be withdrawn from the elective course, usually taken by upperclassmen.

Others, including parents, administrators and members of the Carroll County Education Association, which represents 1,300 teachers, came to listen to the debate over censorship and community standards --stemming from a parent's complaint about a reference to oral sex in the book.

Joel L. Simon, an American Civil Liberties Union representa

tive, came to determine whether the district had violated the civil liberties of students or teachers. He will report his findings to the Maryland ACLU.

In the end, after nearly three hours of testimony, the board voted, 3-2, to overturn the decision by Gary E. Dunkleberger, director of curriculum/staff development, to remove the book from the district's approved reading list.

"The majority felt the book met community standards," said board member Joseph D. Mish Jr., a former social studies teacher. "We felt it had redeeming value asa whole, and the majority didn't find it offensive."

Board Vice President Cheryl A. McFalls, who, along with John D. Myers Jr. sided with Dunkleberger, said she felt the book "failed to meet community standards" and was inappropriate reading for students.

Following theboard's decision,Dunkleberger said, "The board has reviewed all aspects of the issue and has determined that this particular translation of 'Gilgamesh' is appropriate and meets community standards."

Farley, along with Westminster High School English teacher Stephanie Douglass, argued that removing the book from the curriculum amounted to "unjustified censorship."

"It's an appropriate tale of enduring worth, a statement against corruption," Farley said.

A Westminster parent challenged the use of "Gilgamesh" last September. Besides the purported reference to oral sex, the parent contended the book promotedbestiality and portrayed prostitution as having a valuable role in society. School officials found no basis for the latter claims.

Responding to the complaint, a Reconsideration Committee of parents, teachers and faculty decided in January that Mason's translation of "Gilgamesh" should remain on the approved reading list.

"We felt therewas a sexual reference," said Mary Jo Winter, one of the committee'sparent representatives. "But we thought the reference to oral sex was not clear. It was open to interpretation."

The committee's decision, however, was appealed to the superintendent, and Dunkleberger, as the superintendent's designee, concluded that the particular translation contained an inappropriate reference to oral sex.

Although the passage doesn't specifically describe oral sex, Dunkleberger told the board that the act could be read into it. He said a more appropriate translation of the epic poem could be substituted in the classroom.

"This is not censorship," he said, noting the book would still be available on library shelves.

Dated as far back as 2500 B.C.,the poem, which has been part of Carroll world literature classes since1978, concerns Gilgamesh, a powerful king in Babylonia, and his search for immortality.

In the story, a temple harlot is sent to the forest to find Enkidu, a man raised by wild animals, and bring him to the human world, using her sexuality.

In Mason's translation, the harlot, upon meeting Enkidu, "bent down and moistened him with her lips then drew him/slowly to the ground."

Shannon Gilbert, a North Carroll High School senior, said she and her classmates thought the passage referred to a kiss. She said her world literature class was shocked when they learned the book had been removed from the class reading list.

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