Meridian leaves controversial novel in limbo

UPDATED, 10:39 a.m. Thursday, to correct name of Meridian student Brady Kissel.

Melanie FIllmore
“It tells my story.” Melanie Fillmore testifies in favor of reinstating “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in Meridian classrooms.

“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” hasn’t been banned in Meridian.

But the controversial novel won’t be used in high schools in the state’s largest school district — at least for now.

After two hours of emotional testimony, a split Meridian School Board voted Tuesday night to keep the book on hold — while the district looks for another novel that explores American Indian cultural issues, and launches into a full review of novels on the district’s supplemental reading lists.

The 2007 Sherman Alexie novel — written from the point of view of an American Indian teenager who transferred to an all-white high school — has been a flashpoint in Meridian and other communities. The book has been banned in other schools due to its graphic language and sexual content, and Meridian placed the book on hold in response to parental complaints.

That hold will remain in effect, but Meridian still might wind up reinstating the book on its reading list, School Board Chairman Anne Ritter said after Tuesday night’s hearing. It’s possible that district teachers will not find an appropriate substitute, and will simply keep the book on the reading list.

The book was not required reading in Meridian’s curriculum. It was a supplemental book that students could choose to read — although students were expected to pass along a note to parents alerting them to its content. A district committee reviewed petitions to remove the book altogether, but instead recommended keeping the book on reading lists, with parental consent.

But on Tuesday night, the decision fell to trustees, who clearly and publicly agonized over their options. A motion to remove the book died for the lack of a second — as did a motion to keep the book on the school’s reading list, without any parental consent required. Trustee Janet Calinsky — and Ritter — seemed to hope for some middle ground. “I want to give our teachers time to find a terrific book,” said Calinsky.

The book in question drew an overflow audience Tuesday night — and polarized the room. Supporters and opponents alike fought back tears as they made their case to trustees. The hearing was punctuated by applause — and a few hisses from the audience, after Idaho American Civil Liberties Union executive director Monica Hopkins spoke in favor of the book.

Sharon Blair
“I went ballistic.” After her grandson showed her a reading assignment, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Sharon Blair became involved in a campaign to remove the novel from Meridian high schools.

Most speakers voiced opposition to the novel. Parents, grandparents and some students said the book’s obscenities and references to masturbation were inappropriate for high school students. And they said allowing students to opt out of reading the book would subject them to ridicule from their classmates.

Gabriella Hand, a Meridian High School sophomore, read the book as a school assignment. But she said she found the content “shocking” — and said her teacher skipped over the most graphic material in class discussion. “It’s still unfortunate that this problem had to exist at all.”

“These children came from our wombs,” said Sharon Blair, a 27-year teacher and grandmother of a student who read the book. “You have them as teachers for a small part of their days.”

But several teachers and librarians spoke in favor of keeping the book on an optional reading list — and allowing students to make their own choices.

Brady Kissel, a Mountain View High School junior, came to the hearing with 300 signatures from classmates and faculty members who want the book to stay. She said she and her classmates objected to having their educational experience “censored.”

Melanie Fillmore said the book’s narrative resonated with her — as a woman with an American Indian father, a white mother, and a white husband. “These are real experiences that I had. These are real experiences my children will have.”

Video: Kaila Ho, a sophomore at Mountain View High School, testifies against using ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ in Meridian high schools.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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