Battle Lines Drawn Over School Play

March 15, 1992|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Staff writer

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws thatcatch!

-- Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking-Glass"

Profane or pedagogical?

That is the question raised about "Jabberwock", this year's annual play at North Harford Middle School. Some parents are complaining that the satirical comedy contains profanity and sexual innuendo.

The county schools Superintendent Ray R. Keech responded to parent complaints by cutting five expletives from the play, which is to be presented by an eighth-grade class April 24.

Four students withdrew from the play because of parents' objections to the play's content. And the teachers leading the production are unhappy about the thescript deletions made by the superintendent.

Last week, about 40 people affiliated with a Fawn Grove church attended the Harford school board meeting to demand that the play be canceled and that the teachers who selected the play be disciplined.

"If students used the language in this play on the school bus or in the school, they would be subject to suspension," said Linda Lowe, a parent of four schoolchildren. The use of foul language in a school play appears to condone its use by students, in conflict with other school policies that prohibit profanity, she said.

Rod Knauer, whose son Nathan pulled out of the play, complained that the teachers who chose the drama and their principal ignored parents' objections and avoided the review process set up after similar complaints several years ago.

The Rev. JohnCramer, pastor of the Fawn Grove Church of the Nazarene, said that the "appropriate moral tone is violated by this play," and that another play should be chosen.

Principal R. David Denton, who approved the uncensored script for the school production, defended the choice of the play, which he said is designed to stimulate critical thinking and expose students to ideas, not to endorse the use of offensive language.

"In some ways, parents should be expressing gratitude over the efforts that are being made," he said. More offensive language isheard on television, without any context or direction given young viewers, he added.

Teachers Virginia Huller and Tom Berg, who have been producing an annual play for 14 years, reviewed more than 50 plays before selecting "Jabberwock," which is based on the adolescent years of humorist James Thurber.

" 'Jabberwock' is a well-written play capable of making our students think," Huller said. "I was surprised by the reaction."

A few parents have taken lines with curse words out of context in order to create controversy, underestimating the critical judgment of the students, who are in the gifted and talentedclass, Huller said.

"We want to expose children to ideas, and drama is a good way to do that," said Berg.

Schools regularly expose students to controversial ideas -- war, drug use, Nazism, prejudice -- without endorsing their practice, he noted.

Producing the play is part of carefully designed lesson plans in language arts and socialstudies for the seven-week period, not an extracurricular activity or entertainment, he pointed out.

"Eighth-grade students also understand that the use of appropriate language is dependent on time and circumstance," Huller observed. Limited profanity in the play is uttered by an elderly, cantankerous Civil War veteran to underline his disgust with the changing world, an essential part of his character, sheexplained.

The teachers originally deleted or changed offensive words in the script at the suggestion of the superintendent's office, leaving in five expletives that they felt were important to the dialogue. Keech then told them to eliminate those last five epithets.

"He took out three 'damns' and two 'hells,' " Huller said, noting thatthe superintendent did so without reading the entire play.

"We think censorship is dangerous; we worry how far censorship will go beyond this," she added.

The two teachers have not backed down in the past. In 1982, they turned to the American Civil Liberties Union for help when the superintendent tried to prohibit staging "Inherit the Wind," a drama that treats conflicting religious views of creation andevolution.

They were allowed to stage the play, drawing large crowds that included a bus load of students from a New York school who had read about the controversy and wanted to lend their support.

Some protests were also made about past productions of "Fahrenheit 451"and "The Last Babylon," but no changes were made, Berg said. Other plays performed over the years have included Shakespearean works, "OurTown" and "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"Children look forward to being in the play from the time they enter sixth grade here," he said.

The production enjoys apparent popular support. The students held a dance to raise money to buy playbooks and to hire an outside drama coach for a week, while the Parent-Teacher Association donated money.Proceeds from the one-night public performance are donated to charity.

The school board has not yet received an official appeal, whichcould cause it to hold a hearing on the issue, and board members indicated they are not likely to take further action.

The protesters voiced their views during the informal public comment period of the board's monthly meeting.


Among the five lines from "Jabberwock" changed at the request of School SuperintendentRay R. Keech was this one:

What the playwrights wrote:

Grandpa: "Ye'll not hide out in this attic, ya God-damn lily-livered cattle."

What the teachers suggested:

Grandpa: "Ye'll not hide out in this attic, ya damn lily-livered cattle."

What the superintendent decided:

Grandpa: "Ye'll not hide out in this attic, ya lily-livered cattle."

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