Curtain for a classic drama

Principal decides "Mockingbird' wrong for Owings Mills

Students, parents chafe

October 30, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

A decision by Owings Mills High School's principal to scrap the production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" for fear the literary classic was "not politically correct" has students and parents upset even as young actors prepare a light-hearted play instead.

Although Harper Lee's 1960 novel is banned in some schools around the nation, Baltimore County has long required all ninth-graders to read the story about a tomboy named Scout whose father, lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man wrongly charged with the rape of a white girl.

But Principal Margaret I. Spicer said she pulled the plug on the performance last month after reading a script and finding its language and some scenes to be "inappropriate" and "not politically correct." She declined to be more specific.

Spicer and drama teacher Sharon Lutz then selected "Cheaper by the Dozen," a comedy-drama about a large family, setting off criticism among some students.

"This narrow-minded attitude simply has no place in an environment where students can freely learn and respect the cultures of other students," wrote 17-year-old Jordan Berman, editor-in-chief of the Eagles' Eye, the school newspaper, in an editorial published this month.

"I loved the book; I think it has a beautiful message," said 15-year-old Owings Mills sophomore Tasha Blount.

But Spicer said she feared that some members of Owings Mills' diverse community, which includes residents from about 36 nationalities, might be offended by the performance. She worried that young adults repeating racial epithets on the stage could be misinterpreted.

The Owings Mills Parent Teacher Student Association executive board -- which is composed of about 30 parents -- is backing Spicer.

"It's a wonderful book, don't get me wrong, but there was concern that some parents with young children might come to the performance and not know the subject matter and be surprised," said PTSA president Paula Silverstein.

"Would you like your 6-year-old child to come to a play like this?"

But Owings Mills parent Susan Steinweg -- the mother of three children ages 16, 12 and 2 -- said she sees no problem with a group of students presenting the play to an audience of all different ages. "I would take my 12-year-old to see it regardless of the language because unless a child hears that kind of language constantly, it shouldn't make an impact," she said.

Language in the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- including "damn," "whore lady" and "nigger" -- has led some school systems and public libraries across the nation to ban it, according to the American Library Association.

In Baltimore County, however, the book has been used by English teachers in high school classrooms for at least 30 years, said Hank McGraw, supervisor of the school system's secondary English and reading curriculum.

"It's not a text we get complaints about," he said, noting that some English teachers might use the play as a resource to further explain Lee's novel. Teachers, he said, would then "use their best judgment" regarding language and scenes.

In the drama world, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of the most popular and most often performed plays, said Rob Goodman, the ar- tistic director of First Stage Milwaukee, a Wisconsin theater group that targets young audiences.

When First Stage performed an unedited version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" for middle and high school students three years ago, it was a huge success, he said.

"It was an extremely powerful experience and a very teachable moment," Goodman said about the performances, which prompted frank discussions among teachers, parents and students.

At the Drama Bookstore in New York City, the stage version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a hot seller, especially among high school drama groups, said manager Sasha Domnitz. "It's a classic," she said.

Both Spicer and Silverstein praise the educational value of Lee's novel, but say that it's more appropriately dealt with in the classroom where teachers can guide students through sensitive subject matter such as racial discrimination, rape and murder.

"In a classroom, there is a guided discussion and then there is closure, and that's important," Silverstein said.

That means a teacher works with students to come to a conclusion about a novel's message, she explained, something that might not happen during a play in the high school auditorium.

Spicer said she decided that some students might lack maturity to deal with the play. As principal of the school, it's up to her to "do what's best for students," she said.

But some students, such as Jordan, chafe at Spicer's reasoning.

"Considering the constant reminders of the student body's diversity with regard to race, religion, ethnicity and socio--econom- ic status, the decision to replace `To Kill a Mockingbird' is especially egregious," he said.

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