'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' causes a stir in Oxford
● By Steven Hoffman
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” one of the best-loved works of acclaimed writer and poet Maya Angelou, was a focal point of the Dec. 16 Oxford School Board meeting. Most of the 50 or so people in attendance were there to find out why high school students weren't being allowed to continue to use the book as part of an ongoing assignment for an honors English class.
Shortly before the Thanksgiving break, Sarah Robinson and other Oxford Area High School students were well on their to completing a classroom project that compares “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” to another literary classic, Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Then, after the students had completed approximately 20 chapters in the book, the teacher collected all the copies of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and told the students that the assignment couldn't continue at that time.
The students were understandably confused. There were rumors that at least one parent had objected to having high school students read the book. Since it was published in 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” has been regularly challenged and ranks in the top ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms. Parents have often objected to its sexually explicit scenes and violence.
At the board meeting, parents and students wanted clarification from the school board about the status of the book.
Robinson's mother, Ann Marie, said that the assignment comparing the two literary works was, in her opinion, a good one, and she didn't understand why the students weren't allowed to finish the work.
She also explained students and parents were confused about the sudden decision not to use the book. Had a parent challenged its use? There was also some discussion about the district's policy regarding the approval of classroom materials.
“Certain people were told that policy was not followed,” Robinson explained, urging the board to allow teachers to make decisions about what educational materials to use in the classroom. Her comments received loud applause from the audience.
As it turned out, the board had apparently resolved the issue in a way that would be pleasing to the concerned parents and students. The board had already voted to approve a list of supplemental materials, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” resolving the policy issue.
High School principal Christopher Dormer said that after that board action, teachers would have the option of including the book in classroom instruction.
That was pleasing news to Sarah Robinson, who said that she was excited to be able to finish studying Angelou's book. While she understood why some might object to the graphic, but brief depictions of sex and violence, Robinson said that most of the content of the book dealt with issues like discrimination that had considerable educational value. She said that she thought it was beneficial for high school students to read the work.
“I feel it was definitely appropriate for my age,” she said.
Other people in attendance at the meeting were relieved that the book wasn't being removed from the school.
One concerned parent, who did not want to be identified, said that she didn't think it would be appropriate for the school district to remove the book because of just one objection to it.
“When you pull a book from students, it sends a message,” the parent said. “And I think it sends the wrong message that the complaint of one person can get a book removed.”
She added that during instances where a parent does object to having a child read a specific book or story because of concerns about appropriateness, a teacher can easily substitute a different work in the place of the objectionable material on a case by case basis, rather than removing a book entirely.
Thomas Griffith, another of the students in attendance, showed up at the meeting with a piece of paper taped to his shirt which read: “Stop censorship” with a Maya Angelou quote beneath it: “Education helps one cease being intimidated by strange situations.”
Griffith said that he wanted to do his part as a member of the community to prevent a book from being censored.
In other business at the meeting, State Sen. Andy Dinniman presented a citation to Charles Lewis, who is retiring as the business manager after 29 years in January.
“Legislators have come and gone, superintendents have come and gone. Taxes have gone up and they have come down. But there has been one steady element to the school district and that has been the business manager,” said Dinniman.
The school board will meet again on Tuesday, Jan. 13 and Tuesday, Jan. 20. Both meetings take place at 7 p.m. at the Hopewell Elementary School.