Couple battles to ban book Hearing is Saturday on parents' complaints about Angelou memoir

'It's been a hassle'

Writings defended as relevant to today's teen-agers

August 16, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Barry and Sharon Taylor of Edgewater never wanted to be the center of a storm over censorship and First Amendment rights, never set out to become arbiters of taste or curriculum. They just wanted to protect their daughter and two sons.

Their fight since last fall to get Maya Angelou's autobiographical "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" out of Anne Arundel County public school libraries and English classes has attracted national attention, though -- and criticism for them. They've been called book burners. Many who disagree with them see them as religious fanatics or bigots. They try not to think about that.

"It is against our beliefs that this book is available to kids," Barry Taylor said last week in the couple's first interview. "We have strong morals even though we are painted as strange people." Simply, they just don't like the profanity in the book and its descriptions of rape, masturbation and casual sex.

They'd hoped the school system would deal with their concerns. They have avoided speaking publicly except in May, when they presented their case to a group of administrators, teachers and students, who voted unanimously the book should continue to be taught in ninth grade and offered as supplemental reading in 11th-grade classes.

On Saturday, the Taylors take their case before the school board in a proceeding that feels a lot to them like a trial. An interview was a rehearsal for that. They still refused to allow themselves to be photographed, to discuss the book in the presence of their children -- two of whom attend South River High School -- or to let the children's names be used.

"Yes, it's been a hassle," said Barry Taylor, sitting next to his wife in a living room decorated with their son's baseball trophies.

"We don't have highfaluting lawyers to handle all the paperwork, motions and exhibits we get in the mail from the school attorneys. We have tried to keep this low-keyed. We just want to handle this as parents."

Newspaper complaint

The Taylors -- Barry, 41, runs an upholstery business and Sharon, 36, gave up an insurance career to raise her children -- became enmeshed in school politics in November when another South River High parent complained to the Capital newspaper in Annapolis about a book her child had been assigned. The Taylors questioned their ninth-grade son, who said he was reading "Caged Bird" too. As Barry Taylor worked evenings on chairs, his wife read it to him.

"I got to certain parts and I got up and said I couldn't read it out loud," she said. "I couldn't believe what was in it. It was so graphic. If [Angelou] had just said she had been raped, that was one thing, but to describe it in detail like that is another."

The couple wrote to their son's teacher -- Donna Mallow -- asking that he be assigned another book instead. They received a generic letter from Mallow addressed to all parents defending Angelou's use of literary devices and lessons applicable to today's youth.

"Yes this book tells of rape -- but the lesson Ms. Angelou sends is don't feel it is your fault and punish yourself but tell someone, get help, get support," Mallow wrote. "Yes this book tells of her first sexual experience, but she explains that sex is meaningless without love. Yes this book uses explicit language but only as it is used in colloquial speech and not as a sensational, tabloid ploy used in television and movies and even the Internet."

Scenes too graphic

The Taylors disagreed.

Married for 18 years, they are both graduates of Anne Arundel County schools. They remember reading "Lord of the Flies," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Odyssey" in their classes -- books, they say, that imparted some of life's hard lessons without graphic scenes of child abuse and sex.

"Where are the lessons in this?" Barry Taylor asks of Angelou's book. "Where does the book tell you not to go out and have casual sex or get pregnant just to see if you like boys?"

The Taylors say race, religion and emotion have nothing to do with their battle. They raise a simple issue: If schoolchildren are not allowed to use profanity in the hallways or on the playground, why should they be reading it out loud in class? If we are teaching our youth that casual sex is not only wrong, but dangerous, why should they read about people doing it in books?

"We are putting two and two together and coming up with four," Barry Taylor said. "It has got to be stopped at the door. If they can't use that language in the schools, then it can't be in the books."

Indeed, six passages that the Taylors say illustrate their problems with the book could not be reprinted in The Sun. They describe sexual activity and genitals, and use racial slurs.

Although their son was eventually assigned "Great Expectations" as a substitute, he was required to sit through class discussions of Angelou's book, Sharon Taylor said. And, according to the Taylors, Mallow offered to keep a copy of Angelou's book in the classroom for their son.

"That was a slap in the face to us," Sharon Taylor said.

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