Book ban might have unintended plot twist

December 09, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Yesterday, the day he turned 77 years old, Charles I. Ecker had a piece of birthday cake and ducked all incoming flak. He was having a swell time. It was such a swell time that he got on the telephone and told a funny story to a newspaper guy he's known for quite a few years.

"I went to the doctor for my physical," Ecker said. "Doctor said, `You're in such good shape, I bet you feel like a 30-year-old.' I told him, `Where is she?'"

The story has the ring of sweetness coming from a man of Ecker's age and stature. There's life in the old boy yet. But context obviously counts and, in the current climate, there's irony in the telling: One person's innocent remark is another person's sensitivity. And precisely such distinctions have Ecker, the superintendent of Carroll County schools, under fire this week.

He believed he had performed a valuable public service on behalf of his county's teenagers. Indeed he did, though it wasn't the service he intended. Ecker heard there were dirty words in a book. He heard there was sex in the book. So he skimmed the offending pages and then, sloughing off all context, he banned the thing from all school libraries.

This was his great unintended public service: Instead of hiding something from teenagers who otherwise wouldn't read a book under threat of taking away their cell phones, he unintentionally tricked them into discovering the pleasures of literature.

As it happens, Ecker is a kind and thoughtful man. When he banned Carolyn Mackler's acclaimed and award-winning novel The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, he intended a gesture of protection. He should know better.

It is human nature to want the things somebody says we cannot have. (For reference, Ecker could reread the great fence-painting scene from Tom Sawyer - unless Tom's been banned from Carroll County libraries, too.) Also, it is human nature among young people to want the things that old people are trying to hide from them.

So here is what has happened: Ecker orders the book removed from the shelves of all school libraries. Students at Winters Mill High School in Westminster cry censorship and mount a petition drive to get the book returned to the libraries. The controversy makes news all over the state.

And Ecker's alerted all these kids, across all of Maryland, that something's going on here that they might want to check out: not just sex, not just dirty words - but the story of a teenager who's going through the kind of nervous, insecure coming-of-age experiences (including all these scary questions of romance and sexuality and self-image) that are mirror images of their own lives and thus might lend comfort and guidance and a sense of not being as isolated as they might have imagined.

As Mackler told The Sun's Gina Davis, her book is an attempt to help struggling teenagers "make sense of their changing world. ... As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility. I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."

This will come as some assurance to Ecker, who said yesterday that he was "reconsidering" his decision and was talking to advisers about the "possibility" of changing it.

The book came to his attention when some parents complained about it to him. The parents first approached a committee set up by the school system to consider such issues. The committee said the book was fine. This was not what the parents wanted to hear. So they went to Ecker. Never mind the raves the book has drawn. Never mind that the American Library Association named it their Best Book for Young Adults, and never mind that the International Reading Association made it the 2005 Young Adults Choice.

"What offends me," Ecker said yesterday, "is the language and the sexual statements that are in there. The use of the f-word time and time again. I know kids here use it and see it, but it's not available to a captive audience like a school. It's a good story about a fat girl. But there are ways to tell a story without using that type of language.

"My mother told me that using foul and vulgar language means you have a poor vocabulary. This isn't censorship. They can still get the book at the public library or a bookstore. And I know this kind of stuff's available in movies and TV, and the Internet. I'm smart enough to know that. But I hope people understand, the message isn't that we're trying to censor anybody; it's that we're trying to be protective."

That is, in fact, what makes Ecker such a figure of conflict here. He is a kind and protective gentleman, not a big-booted authoritarian looking to throw his weight around. And he's right, there are public libraries and stores where students can find the book.

But schools are places where we allow ideas in, not keep them out. Even dangerous ideas, and dangerous words. Within proper context, they're part of an education. They're our way of telling young people: We trust you, we think you can handle this, and we hope it gives you something to think about. And, in this case, take comfort from, and realize you aren't alone.

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