Ban on high school's play insults many, protects none

November 07, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NOBODY WANTS to put the knock on Margaret I. Spicer, the principal of Owings Mills High School. She's only trying to protect people's feelings in a sensitive time. But she's taken a piece of literature and reduced it to a curse.

The literature is "To Kill a Mockingbird," the heart-wrenching 1960 Harper Lee novel about a white Southern lawyer who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.

So powerful is the message of racial bigotry, and the courage to overcome it, that the book became a marvelous movie, and the movie was translated to theater.

At Owings Mills, the kids wanted to produce the stage version this year as the school play.

Spicer, with the best intentions but the worst reasoning, said no.

She told The Sun's Lynn Anderson that she'd read the script and found some of its scenes "inappropriate" and "not politically correct."

According to Anderson, Spicer declined to be more specific.

Last week, Spicer was out of town and could not be reached.

Owings Mills High School has quite a mix of kids these days, not only black and white but three dozen nationalities.

A week ago, Spicer said she worried that some people might be offended by the language and that racial epithets used on the stage might be misinterpreted.

This seems to be getting things a little backward.

For openers, isn't the mix of backgrounds supposed to be the nation's strength?

We arrive here from different places, and different mind sets, and America is where we work things out.

And we encourage this not only because it's America, but because it's a public school, where important ideas are supposed to be thrown around the room until enlightenment dawns.

One important idea is that race has not only divided us, but caused us to inflict great pain upon one another.

Some of this comes from the names we call each other.

One of these names is "nigger," a horrid word because it has been used to hurt so many people.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" uses "nigger." Spicer worried this would be offensive.

But that's exactly the point: to show the offensiveness, and the kind of people who use it, and the pain that it causes.

And to put it in a setting where it is more than just a word, it's part of a whole history and a mind set that seek to harm other human beings -- and young people, given a context, can say, "Oh, so that's why the word is so bad," and maybe connect such behavior to their vulnerabilities.

As a nation eternally struggling with group differences, real and perceived, we have choices: Bring the pain into the open and put it into context, or hope it will go away on its own if we close our eyes long enough.

Or, if we're comically cavalier enough, openly mock it. Years ago, the comedian Dick Gregory wrote his autobiography and titled it "Nigger."

"That way," Gregory laughed, "any time I hear the word, I'll know they're talking about my book."

This was a joke with a lesson attached: It's only a word. If we talk about it, we can put it in its place instead of letting it exert its traditional force.

If we say it within the context of a gripping story, we post a sign with it: Here are the dreadful people who say such awful things, and this is why we find them, and their language, so objectionable.

(In fact, there are other rough words in "Mockingbird," including "damn" and "whore lady." These are words any elementary school child hears on network television. Does someone imagine high school kids will be startled by them?)

In Baltimore County, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been used by high school English teachers for the past 30 years, with few complaints from parents. (The kids are too mature to complain about it.) The same is true around the country.

Those defending the theatrical ban at Owings Mills High draw the distinction that teachers in a classroom setting can help students come to healthy conclusions about the book and its language, but that theater audiences might not get it.

This is not a unique argument. There are school systems and libraries in other states where the book has been banned in all its forms.

That's too bad.

But Baltimore County and Owings Mills have historically had a progressive instinct, and a belief in the intelligence of their children that precluded such narrowness.

Banning a work of art -- specifically, a work that touches the soul of a nation -- is not the way to protect anyone.

It underestimates the intelligence of the kids, and it allows us to close our eyes and ears and imagine the language will go away on its own one day -- when, in our entire history, every bit of evidence tells us it will not.

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