Despite objections from a minority of parents, a North Carolina court has ruled that ninth-grade students at Lake Norman Charter School can continue to study an award-winning book that contains themes some parents declared “anti-Christian.”
The book is Elizabeth Acevedo‘s verse novel The Poet X, a coming-of-age story about an Afro-Latina girl living in Harlem who uses slam poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and exploration as she leaves childhood behind. Parents expressed concern specifically about poems in which the book’s central character, Xiomara, describes her doubts about her family’s Catholic faith.
Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Some parents described the book as “a frontal assault on Christian beliefs and values,” prohibited in schools by the First Amendment. Parents John and Robin Coble went so far as to petition the courts for a temporary restraining order to prevent their child — and everybody else’s — from studying the novel.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. denied the Cobles’ petition for a temporary restraining order to exclude the book from the language arts curriculum. However offensive Christian parents might find the depiction of religious doubt, he explained, its inclusion in a book being studied in a classroom does not violate the Establishment Clause:
The Poet X bears the sole signature of its author, Elizabeth Acevedo. It is a work of fiction, not dogmatic philosophy. It is one book, only tangentially “religious,” thematically grouped with others in the freshman literature curriculum… Plaintiffs may be correct in suggesting that the work “hard[ly]… constitutes the objective study of Christianity,” yet objectivity in education need not inhere in each individual item studied; if that were the requirement, precious little would be left to read…
Of course, Plaintiffs may personally support the traditional religious doctrines doubted by the protagonist in The Poet X. The issue, however, is not whether the work disapproves of any particular religious vision, including Plaintiffs’, but whether its inclusion in the public school curriculum indicates, intentionally or not, that the government joins in that disapproval. Because there has been an insufficient showing that Defendants endorse these views, it is not likely that Plaintiffs will succeed on the merits.
Within his decision, Cogburn made an excellent case for the book’s inclusion in the curriculum, noting that the subjects of Xiomara’s poetry reflect the experiences of the students studying the book: “High school freshmen confronting many of the same questions [as the protagonist], and doubtless beginning to appreciate many of the challenges of making decisions about who they want to be.”
Part of that process involves separating one’s own beliefs and values from those of one’s parents, as Xiomara does throughout The Poet X — and perhaps that’s the real problem for parents like the Cobles. No doubt they sincerely object to the book’s depiction of religion, but maybe the really scary thing about it is what it represents: The Coble child is rapidly reaching an age where they can decide to be somebody other than who their parents prefer them to be.
It’s not a far-fetched conclusion to draw about the sort of parents who would go to court trying to keep anybody around their precious child from studying a book that dares to discuss doubt.
Or maybe they’re just religious busybodies. Either way, their issues have no place dictating what young adults are allowed to read.