NORTH BEND — Students in a North Bend High AP history and literature class are frustrated and confused after school administrators pulled Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from their classroom last week.
On May 9, Dustin Hood and Scott Peters’ American Connections class started learning about post-World War II America. The class pairs history with literature, following literary movements in different eras. Peters complemented the history lesson with an assignment in postmodern literature: Read the first 30 pages of “The Bluest Eye” over the weekend.
“One of the trademarks of that literary movement is looking at the evils of humanity,” said Emily Midyette, a junior in the class.
The book deals with racism, incest and child molestation — topics that have gotten it challenged and banned in classrooms nationwide for years. It was the 15th most challenged book of the 2000s, according to the American Library Association. Just last fall, a group of citizens in a Colorado school district started a petition to remove the book and its “developmentally inappropriate and graphic content” from classroom instruction.
Peters prefaced the assignment by telling his class of 40 students about the controversial content. If they didn’t want to read it, they didn’t have to, he said. Six opted out and chose to read a different book.
But the following Monday, Principal Bill Lucero came to the class with a box and asked the rest of the students to hand over their copies of “The Bluest Eye.”
Lucero said the school district’s policy, “Studying Controversial Issues,” was not followed. It requires teachers to discuss studies in “an obviously controversial topic” with the principal before the class can begin. All texts must be reviewed and approved by school administration every year “and it just went by without being reviewed and we didn’t realize that,” he said.
The purchase of the books was approved by administration earlier this year, Peters said.
While he agreed that technically the policy wasn’t followed, he said very few are aware the policy even exists.
“That’s not why it was pulled,” Peters said. “And certainly the way in which it was pulled was not by policy either.”
Lucero said a committee read the book to “make sure it was right for our school and community.”
“We took a look at the book in the committee and decided we weren’t going to use that book this year,” he said. “We will have some further discussion as to whether to use it in the future or not.”
Assistant high school principal Jake Smith said there are “other options, other books that were available that portrayed the message the teacher was hoping to portray ... something that was more acceptable at school and more mild in terms of some of the content.”
Lucero contended the book is “pretty graphic.”
“Any postmodern piece you choose is going to have physical subject matter and it’s going to be controversial,” Peters said. “One defining characteristic of postmodern literature is shock. Another is aspiration of marginalized groups.”
The book examines the marginalization of African Americans, the poor, women and victims of sexual assault.
Elizabeth Rivera, a parent of a student in the class, agreed the book deserves a trigger warning — which the students received.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it. This book is not Dr. Seuss,” Rivera said. “It’s a heart-wrenching novel. But for me, the main argument is that precisely because of its hard themes there is a ... benefit to this discussion in an academic context.
“Removal of a text like that from a student’s hand is very problematic.”
Before Peters, previous teachers used “Catcher in the Rye” during this section of the class. But it’s written by a white male, as are all the other books in the class.
“I felt like it was irresponsible to teach a whole course ... all consisting of literature by white men,” he said.
The class has had to move on. Each student picked a book on their own — so Midyette chose another Morrison novel that’s been challenged and banned: “Beloved.” It’s the 26th most challenged book in the nation.
“Censorship is something we’ve struggled with as a nation for so long,” Midyette said. “It’s very disappointing to see it here in our own community.
“It’s really frustrating to students because we had all been given the choice to read it. We felt our choice had been taken away.”
The Oregon Department of Education has given “The Bluest Eye” the go-ahead, selecting it for its list of texts that meet the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.
In response to the debacle, Books By The Bay (Midyette’s father owns the bookstore) put both “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” on sale last week.
“I think that I have been characterized as trying to shake up the North Bend community, which is not my intention,” Peters said. “I’m just trying to do what I’ve been asked to do, which is teach a unit on postmodern American literature. I don’t know how to do that without choosing a piece of postmodern American literature.”