Burlingame superintendent does the right thing

There’s a big hoo-ha going on down in Burlingame, an affluent community south of San Francisco. It seems that 8th graders were reading a book that included descriptions of anal sex and, when a parent complained, the superintendent had the temerity, on moral grounds yet, to pull the book out of the classroom. He seemed utterly incapable of grasping that the book was meaningful. (And yes, the above shocked tone is tongue-in-cheek, because I believe the principle did the right thing.) Here’s the story:

Citing his concern for “the morals of our society,” Burlingame schools Superintendent Sonny Da Marto has stopped four eighth-grade classes from reading “Kaffir Boy,” an award-winning memoir of growing up in a South African ghetto during apartheid.

Da Marto had banned the book from the Burlingame Intermediate School late last month when the 13- and 14-year-old students were nearly halfway through it, said their English teacher, Amelia Ramos, who was required to take the books back from 116 students.

“The kids were angry,” Ramos said. “They were frustrated. They were appalled. And some were so upset that they couldn’t muster any type of verbal response. They were very quiet.”

A divided Burlingame Board of Education discussed the issue at a public meeting Tuesday night but declined to reverse Da Marto’s decision.

The book has been challenged frequently since its publication in 1986 because of two graphic paragraphs describing men preparing to engage in anal sex with young boys. Although Ramos taught “Kaffir Boy” last year without incident, a parent complained this year — and Da Marto agreed.

At the board meeting, Da Marto called “Kaffir Boy” an outstanding book, but said the paragraphs in question rendered it “inappropriate for this grade level.” He said he would allow an abridged version in which the controversial words were removed.

In “Kaffir Boy,” Mark Mathabane tells his brutal but ultimately triumphant story as one of nine children growing up in poverty during the 1960s and 1970s in a nation where the civil rights of black people were nonexistent. In South Africa, “kaffir” is a gross racial slur.

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“Kaffir Boy has been taught in eighth grade and in many high schools across the United States,” Ramos said. “I wanted to challenge and motivate my students, to broaden their perspectives on life beyond the borders of Burlingame.”

That strategy worked last year, when Ramos freely taught the memoir after it was approved by the Burlingame School District’s “core literature committee” of parents, teachers, a librarian, a student and a school board member.

But in late March, Ramos received an e-mail from a parent complaining about the graphic scene.

On Page 72, readers find a description of child prostitution witnessed by Mathabane when he was younger than Ramos’ students.

He runs away rather than participate in the sex-for-food arrangement with migrant workers that his starving companions agree to — but not before he sees that “the boys, now completely naked, had begun lining up along the bunks.” In two paragraphs, Mathabane uses the words “anuses,” “Vaseline” and “penises” as he describes preparations for the worst.

Ramos forwarded the parent’s e-mail to her principal, Ted Barone, who sent it to Da Marto. That very day, Ramos said, the superintendent ordered the class to stop reading the book.

“I’m very concerned about the morals of our society and that children who don’t have support are not prepared emotionally to read it,” the superintendent said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “They’re already exposed to violence and sex. As a public agency, are we going to contribute to it?” An abridged version of the book has been ordered, Barone told him.

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Parents have been vocal about the book on a Burlingame blog site, burlingamevoice.com. The first entry, on March 26, came from the parent of an eighth-grader objecting to the “graphic and detailed description of grown men raping young boys, as young as 5 years old.” The parent said the child was disturbed by the passages.

Some bloggers agreed, while others, including students, said they would read it no matter what. Some said that Ramos had sent a note to parents offering them the chance to opt their children out of reading the book. Some parents said they hadn’t seen the note.

But some school board members said the district’s discussion about removing the book hadn’t been frank at all.

Board member Liz Gindraux, who also sat on the core literature committee that approved “Kaffir Boy,” said the process had been “disrespected.”

“Two parents object, and the book is pulled without any discussion,” she said. “I feel we jumped the gun a little.”

Board Vice President Michael Barber said, “I don’t want to be the censor board.”

Parent Kerbey Altmann said the banning decision had “echoes of a police state.”

“I feel my right as a parent was usurped unceremoniously and quickly. There was not full disclosure,” he said.

His son, eighth-grader Tom Altmann, asked the board how “shielding us from the scene in the book will benefit us.”

No one spoke in favor of the ban.

I have no doubt but that the book is a fine book, that makes good points about child suffering under a terrible regime. That does not mean it is appropriate reading for 12 and 13 year olds! I’d like to be clever here, and make good analogies and larger points, but I can’t. It seems to me that the bottom line (pardon the pun, given the matter at issue here) is whether public schools should foist onto young children graphic descriptions of anal sex.

There are wonderful books about young people surviving repressive regimes. One of my favorites was A Girl Called Judith Strick, about a Jewish teenager who fought against the Nazis, got arrested by the Gestapo, was sent to a concentration camp, and survived to help found the State of Israel.  I’m sure you can all add to the list, with books about different places and times when young people overcame terrible odds to triumph.  I’m equally sure that the ones written for young adults don’t have graphic sexual descriptions, and that this absence of content does not impair the books’ messages.

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Comments

  1. says

    I have to disagree with you here. Things have changed. Because of mandatory AIDS education, all children aged 10 or older in the public schools have been exposed to detailed descriptions of anal sex. The cat is already out of the bag.
    Secondly, the holocaust and WWII are taught in history, in 7th grade–not fiction, the Inquisition too. Rape is a fact of life, and that’s the age students need to start thinking about it. They can commit rape at age 13, they need to consider the deep and difficult moral implications of their own power in order to become ethical human beings.
    “Sheltering” them from learning about morally horrendous acts is not the job of parents, why should it be the job of schools? The real question is, at what age can a young person come to grips with the true face of evil.

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