Exiles in the Heartland, Part 2

Maya Angelou had one comment about the Fond du Lac controversy: "I'm saddened."

(Click here for Part 1 of this story.)

This crowd was itching for a fight. About all the wrong things.

The "Save us from the Christian Taliban" placard was a pretty good indication.

David and Lorrie knew something was odd the moment they walked into the high school on the evening of November 21, 2006, and saw that the committee meeting had been shifted to a much bigger room.

They stepped into a tense environment. Some 80 people had showed up, including several English teachers from the high school, plus folks they'd never seen before. And suddenly, it seemed, this was all about their Christian beliefs.

Religion? Who'd mentioned religion?

David and Lorrie were taken aback. Up until now, their complaint about including Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings -- an autobiographical novel that contains several sexually explicit passages -- on the curriculum of their daughter's sophomore advanced English class had been handled professionally and more or less confidentially by the Fond du Lac School District, which had convened a nine-member "Reconsideration Committee" to discuss the parents' concerns.

This meeting, the committee's second, hadn't even been posted; the district, in fact, would later be accused of violating open-meeting laws. So who were all these people, and how did they hear about it?

David and Lorrie sat down. They'd come with a handful of allies--including my dad and his wife, two of some 50 or so community leaders they'd contacted about their case--but clearly, this audience was overwhelmingly on the other side.

David spotted the "Christian Taliban" sign first.

"Look behind you," David said to his wife.

Lorrie glanced at the sign and turned back "ghost-white," David says.

Not long afterward, she slipped him a note. "Can I die now?"

At the first committee meeting in October, David and Lorrie had spent an hour presenting their case: Caged Bird simply wasn't appropriate for 15- and 16-year-olds because of its sexual content. "The graphic details of Maya Angelou's life are tragic," Lorrie wrote to the district superintendent, "but potentially evoke a dangerous level of emotional and sexual awakening that a classroom teacher is absolutely unprepared to guide the students through.

"There are many other books," she continued, "which would well serve the learner outcomes without the necessity to shock the reader and violate the parental rights to form their own child's sexual identity with appropriate...values-based education."

Here's what David and Lorrie asked the district to do in their complaint, which consisted of a two-page letter dated October 6, a district form and 10 pages of supporting materials: Remove Caged Bird from the district's curriculum.

Here's what David and Lorrie did not ask the district to do: Ban Caged Bird from the school library or "censor" the content somehow.

Nor did they invoke their conservative Christian beliefs at any time. To them, it wasn't a religious issue. It was a matter of parents exerting the primary influence on their children's education.

Yet here they were at Round 2 of the Reconsideration Committee, and the issue had scattered into a dozen red herrings.

Nearly 40 people had signed up to speak. The chair of the committee opened with a statement that kept a clear focus on the issues at hand. This wasn't a matter of banning or censoring, she said; the committee had been asked to reconsider Caged Bird's inclusion in the curriculum.

Her words were promptly ignored.

What ensued instead was oddly emotional blather, like the guy who got up and spoke teary-eyed about how Caged Bird was the best book he'd ever read as an adult, that it changed his life. And?

Some decried this horrendous act of "banning" and "censoring," with one speaker likening David and Lorrie's complaint to book-burning in Nazi Germany.

Others expressed how frightening it would be to live in a world of dangerously "sheltered" children like Caitlin.

Maya Angelou is a wonderful poet, one teacher protested.

Which, of course, was never a point of contention.

Christianity was frequently thrust into the equation, which puzzled David and Lorrie. Why did it seem like their religious beliefs were on trial?

What they wouldn't find out until later was that much of this crowd and its hostile, off-point position had been stirred up by an e-mail distributed to Fond du Lac Democrats two days earlier. It was written by then-Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, a Fond du Lac resident, and forwarded in successive waves by a county Democratic Party leader and Sister Stella Storch, a nun who is well-known locally for her public protests on justice issues.

(Sister Storch belongs to the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes. The mission-statement page on their Web site proclaims "Justice, Peace, Ecology." I had to scroll down quite a ways before I found any mention of Sister Storch's husband. You know, that guy -- Jesus Christ.)

The e-mail -- titled "Censorship in Fond du Lac Schools: Letter from Peg" -- contains a summary of the dispute as well as bigoted babble.

"An extreme right-wing Christian from the Fond du Lac community is requesting the school district pull a classic work from the advanced English sophomore-reading curriculum," it begins.

The letter goes on to praise Maya Angelou and Caged Bird, and notes that the author recited a poem at Bill Clinton's first presidential inauguration. "Whether Ms. Angelou's politics plays into this effort to ban the book is anyone's guess," the letter says. Lautenschlager summarizes the family's objections, then claims that Lorrie "is circulating petitions at right-wing churches to present to the school district."

"Tragically," the letter concludes, "this is another example of the extreme right wing attempting to force their own ideals and values about education on all students of Fond du Lac in a manner which will preclude them from having the education given to students throughout the nation. I'd encourage you to act."

Let's see: "An extreme right-wing Christian...circulating petitions at right-wing churches...another example of the extreme right wing..."

Just what is this information based on? And when did the issue become a family's conservative Christian beliefs?

What about Lautenschlager's assertion that students deprived of Caged Bird will miss out on "the education given to students throughout the nation"?

Hysterical nonsense. Caged Bird isn't even used in all of the sophomore English classes at Fond du Lac High School. Caitlin's teacher chose it; others did not. So plenty of students have been denied the Caged Bird experience, with no apparent ill effects, since Fondy High has a reputation throughout the state for educational excellence.

Furthermore, scholars disagree on the literary merits of Caged Bird. My estimation of it is considerably higher than Lorrie's, but the book has its detractors; some of them criticize Angelou's shifting point-of-view and mixed metaphors.

Dallas-area school districts aren't falling over themselves to put Caged Bird in front of their students. We found that Caged Bird is one of many approved works in Garland and Grand Prairie, but it's not required, and no teacher is electing to use it right now. (In Garland, if parents disapprove of an assigned book, their child will be given an alternative.) Some districts, such as Cedar Hill and Plano, assign an excerpt of Caged Bird with no objectionable content -- though I also talked to a young woman who read Caged Bird in its entirety as an eighth-grader in Cedar Hill ISD. There was no parental notification, and her mother isn't too happy about that.

We also asked the Dallas Independent School District about Caged Bird, but we haven't heard back. Asking DISD for information on even the most innocuous matters is kind of like putting a message in a bottle.

Yesterday I called Lautenschlager and Richard Mantz, chairman of the Democratic Party of Fond du Lac County, to ask them about the letter they circulated. (In case you're wondering, every other human being in Fond du Lac has a German surname.) Mantz told me he'd personally checked out some of the info in the letter and heard from multiple sources that David and Lorrie had been circulating petitions in churches, something the couple vehemently denies. He was told that Lorrie and David had enlisted several pastors to speak on their behalf at the meeting. Only one did.

Mantz thought it important to represent the pro-Caged Bird side, so he forwarded the letter to some 200 people. Many showed up at the meeting.

I asked Mantz about the inflammatory language, and he sidestepped the question a few times. Finally he admitted he hadn't edited Lautenschlager's letter at all ("Do you know who she is?" he asked) and referred me to the former state attorney general, who was voted out of office in November. She hasn't called me back yet.

Message in a bot-tle...

I happen to be quite familiar with the church David and Lorrie attend, by the way. It is hardly a "right-wing church." It's just your basic evangelical church. There is no vast right-wing conspiracy here, just a few lonely Calvinists.

But really, the story has a happy ending. The Fond du Lac School District came up with an eminently sensible solution, one suggested by one of the commenters on last week's Bible Girl column. It declined to remove Caged Bird from the curriculum. In the future, though, parents will be informed whenever a teacher makes such a controversial choice for the class reading list. (The American Library Association lists Caged Bird as No. 3 on its list of "Frequently Challenged Books" from 1990-2000; click here for the rest.) The teacher will provide the student with an alternate reading assignment if the parents object. David and Lorrie agreed with this compromise.

Their daughter, by the way, is sick of the whole thing.

The parents are exhausted. And reeling. Friendships have been lost. For weeks, they couldn't go to any public place without overhearing conversation about them, or catching a pointing finger from the corner of their eye.

Who knew they'd have to wage total war simply to protect a child's conscience?

Is it even worth it?

For David and Lorrie, it all goes back to innocence. When it's gone, it's gone.

Do you remember the first time you ever came across pornographic images, or the first time you read a sexually explicit passage in a book or magazine?

You remember it clearly, don't you?

Lorrie put it best. "There is no delete button." --Julie Lyons

Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Kaitlin Ingram assisted in the reporting for this column.

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