School board votes to keep Angelou's book in classes

October 14, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County public high school students will continue to read Maya Angelou's controversial account of growing up in the segregated South, the school board has decided in rejecting an Edgewater couple's claim that profanity and sex make the book unfit reading.

"We are not surprised; we thought this was going to happen," said Barry Taylor, who filed a complaint in November about the use of "Why the Caged Bird Sings" in freshman English classes. "If they had done anything different, they would not be supporting their teachers."

In a 13-page decision released yesterday, the eight board members said they "simply disagree" with Barry and Sharon Taylor's belief that the book in not appropriate for students.

"This board has concluded that the value of 'Caged Bird' outweighs the concerns expressed by Mr. and Mrs. Taylor," the board wrote.

School board member Paul Rudolph said he struggled with the issues the Taylors had raised and decided that if the book had been offered to his daughter when she was a ninth-grader, he would have let her read it.

"I was extremely bothered by the sex and the profanity in the book," he said. "But the value of the book is that it shows how a person who came from the most socially and economically disenfranchised background can succeed."

Janet Bury, another board member, said the value of the book lies in Angelou's prose.

"It is a beautiful piece of literature," she said. "The profanity and sex don't bother me. But I don't know how I would feel if I were a parent."

Carol S. Parham, the county superintendent of schools, pulled the 1970 book, a National Book Award winner, from the curriculum after parents complained about sexually explicit passages. Parham submitted the book to a curriculum committee this year for review.

In April, the committee of students, teachers and administrators listened to testimony from the Taylors and from teachers who defended the book saying that it teaches "life's lessons" to students. After a daylong closed debate, it voted unanimously to keep the book in the classroom.

The committee also decided that parents will be required to sign a syllabus that clearly explains that the book contains "strong language and sophisticated themes."

They also requested that teachers attend a four-day summer course that would instruct them on how to teach the book and other contemporary literature with similar themes.

The Taylors appealed to Parham, who agreed with the committee, then filed a formal complaint with the school board.

The Taylors' complaint is believed to be the first in Maryland against Angelou's book, which is widely read in high schools nationwide and which offended parents with the same concerns as the Taylors have frequently targeted.

The couple said the profanity and sex violate the school system's policy on student conduct, which forbids such behavior.

During a three-day hearing in August before the board, they said their objections to the book had nothing to do with race. Sharon Taylor said she saw no value in the book and that Angelou did not make it clear how she overcame the obstacles in her life.

She and her husband were also disturbed that their son, who attends South River High School, had to sit through class discussion of the book even after he was given an alternative book for his English class.

The Taylor's pastor, the Rev. Earl Thompson of Community Baptist Church in Edgewater, told the board that the book offended him and his wife.

He told the board, "This type of material inflames the base nature of man to do what comes natural, not necessarily what is right."

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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