And now she knows it's strictly taboo Montana meets the Middle Ages

April 08, 1994|By Alice Hoffman

IF WE were to put our faith in the West Valley School Board of Kalispell, Mont., we might be convinced that there are witches in that part of the state.

Certainly, there is one woman who has handed out books and knowledge, to mere children, and it looks as if some may consider such acts black magic.

In following the American Library Association policy that librarians are duty bound to obtain requested material without regard to bias or personal judgment, Debbie Denzer, an assistant librarian who had worked at the West Valley School for a little more than a year, made the sort of mistake you can't afford to make around there.

In early December, she assisted two seventh grade girls with their research for a class report, giving them information from encyclopedias and lending them two books of her own after making sure that they had their parents' and teacher's approval.

The girls had chosen the topic of witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

The day after Ms. Denzer lent them the books, one of the girls' parents complained that the books -- one of which contained a description of a black mass -- were inappropriate and, by the following weekend, the school principal called her to say that he would recommend she be dismissed.

I was interested in witchcraft in seventh grade.

Certainly it was not spells or charms that drew me to the subject. I couldn't believe that there had ever been such a horrible persecution of women for reasons that seemed so clearly wrong.

Women perceived to have power had been so feared they had been obliterated.

This called up issues from my own life that I could not have begun to articulate, about the limits I had faced and would continue to face as an adult and a woman.

That year, when I was 13, I hoped that someday I would be a librarian and I now see a connection between that desire and my interest in witchcraft.

Books may well be the only true magic. A librarian is a conjurer of sorts, with access to some of the greatest mysteries: the novels, biographies and history books on the shelves.

Instead of burning Ms. Denzer at the stake, the school authorities fired her for "unsatisfactory performance" and "misconduct." They took her job away and ruined her reputation, even though her supervisor and five teachers from a neighboring district supported her at a hearing with the school's board of trustees.

Even though her file contained just one evaluation, and it was positive. Even though Ms. Denzer -- in a panic to keep her job -- wrote a letter of apology to the girls' parents.

The books she had lent were "The Devil and All His Works" by Dennis Wheatley, and "Not in God's Image: Women in History From the Greeks to the Victorians" by Julia O'Faolain and Lauro Martines.

Certainly the girls' parents, as well as their principal, were afraid of something, though I'm not sure it was witchcraft.

Perhaps they simply do not want their children to look for answers, or perhaps they do not want them to ask any questions.

But what they don't seem to realize is that seventh grade girls learn fast.

These girls almost certainly got the message: Books are dangerous. Never, under any circumstances, dare to think for yourself. Ms. Denzer hired a lawyer, and she has filed an appeal with the county superintendent; a decision is expected this month. But she believes she will never again be able to work in a school library anywhere in the vicinity of West Valley, Mont.

The two girls never finished their report on witchcraft. Instead they wrote about bison.

So don't tell me they didn't learn a lesson at school, and it's a lesson that should break our hearts.

Alice Hoffman is author, most recently, of "Second Nature," a novel.

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