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Exiles in the Heartland, Part 1

Once you've lost your innocence, you don't think about it much anymore. We accustom ourselves so quickly to compromise, to an acceptable level of sin. Really, it's our only line of defense from a loss for which there is no remedy.

That and depression.

One day, though, you'll get a smack-in-the-face reminder of what you were, and what you'll never be again. If you're a parent like me, you want to grab your kid and spirit him away to a safe place where a semblance of innocence can grow.

If you're a conservative Christian in a generally hostile culture, you're continually faced with a choice: fight or flight. Now Momma can fight. But when it comes to my 7-year-old son, I figure he'll have plenty of battling to do as an adult, when he's slimed every day with greasy gobs of pop-culture oobleck.

So for now, I say flee. Because I don't want him to turn out like me.

It was Christmas at my father's house, in a small town in Wisconsin. Fond du Lac, Foot of the Lake. (My friends and I preferred to call it by its alternate French translation, Bottom of the Lake.) Piles of presents under a 12-foot, lavishly decorated tree -- electronic doodads, expensive video games (Viva Pinata -- whaa?), tiny teenybopper clothes for tiny people -- all in all, a degree of largesse my sister and I had never experienced as kids. Which is cool. I'll keep those twinges of jealousy all to myself.

Now my dad has a second family, and I have two half-sisters and a half-brother who are way younger than me. The youngest, the boy, is 12. I couldn't praise these kids enough. I look at them and I see promise, endless promise. Most of all, a certain innocence. Not the ignorant kind, but the poise and mental clarity that comes from having a firm moral compass. One that's directly related to their parents' creative and consistent Christian guidance from the cradle on up.

When I'm around them, I must say, I see myself as old, worn-out, maybe a little stained. Bitten by life. I laugh at it all, my tangled family past, but my humor has a bite to it. "I'm from the practice family," I said at Christmas to a relative too young to have known my parents when they were still married.

Now my half-siblings are different. When they laugh, they just laugh.

There is no sting.

The day I got up to Wisconsin my dad unearthed a yellowed news clipping from 1980. Gack. There I was in my tinted disco glasses, looking supremely awkward. I'd just won some state contest for editorial cartooning, and the local paper ran a brief story.

I barely recalled having scratched out a cartoon in pen and ink one day for my high-school newspaper after authorities in Montello, Wisconsin, had purged certain books from the town library. At least I think that's what happened. "A Day in the Life of Montello," I called it, and believe me, it was badly drawn stuff, but it ended pointedly with a cannon aimed squarely at the library's front door. Ever so subtle.

You know I pressed probably the only button those crusty old print-journalist judges had left. Censorship! There was no other reason for my cartoon to win.

Such tasty irony seemed lost on my dad when he and his wife Carla began to describe one of the biggest news stories of the year in little Fond du Lac, a community crisis that forced them and just about everyone else in town to choose sides.

Ah, there's nothing like a small-town hissy fit. And this one had it all: religion and sex. Hysterical cries of Censorship! Rumors of a vast right-wing conspiracy, here in the heart of America's Dairyland. Plus a meddling state attorney general. A radical nun. And a straight-A, straight-arrow high school sophomore who we'll call Caitlin. (That's not her real name.)

The story reeled out over our visit, piece by piece. In the snow-covered north woods, or in the living room on the couch where I urged my little brother to "Whack that girl! Whack her hard!" with the shovel in Viva Pinata. (A strategy, by the way, that will cost you dearly. But it feels so good.)

One day Caitlin, who's 15, was reading one of the assigned books for her advanced English class at Fond du Lac High School, and she found herself getting really uncomfortable. She'd worked her way past an earlier scene where the white-trash girl does a handstand, revealing her crotch, but this chapter graphically described a rape—complete with explicit descriptions of body parts, the wetness, the pain.

Caitlin and her family are devout Christians. And she did what kids do in families where rebellion isn't the presumed rite of passage: She brought it to her parents. "Look at the book we're reading," Caitlin said. "It's pornography. Nobody can believe this."

The book didn't line up with the values she'd been taught at home. Yet her teacher had told her to read it. Now what was she supposed to do?

Caitlin's mother, Lorrie, read it herself for the first time and was shocked. What about the kids in class who might have been sexually abused themselves? How would they feel about engaging in class discussions about a child rape?

Certainly it's important to learn about the devastating effects of sexual abuse, Lorrie thought. But is it necessary to know all the graphic details?

Surely you're wondering what the book is, and perhaps you've figured it out. But let's back up for a moment. Like we tell our kids: Stop. Think.

Your kid is 15. She knows about the birds and bees, but not from first-hand acquaintance. Yes, she is innocent in some ways, and that's the way you want it to stay, at least for those 18 years she's under your roof. You know enough about the emotional cost of premature sexual involvement, the consequences of sexual abuse, the pernicious grip of pornography, that you want to carve out a space where a kid's conscience can grow -- unmolested, so to speak.

That, after all, is your prerogative as a parent. And you don't want some ideologically motivated teacher or school official usurping it.

Are you with me here? If you're a parent, I'm pretty sure you are. Unless you're one of those folks who likes to involve their kids as guinea pigs in clever social experiments, in which case, hey, it's all about you anyway.

The book is Maya Angelou's autobiographical classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published in 1969. I read it myself as an adult, and nothing about it particularly shocked me. Actually, I liked it a lot. What stuck with me most was its brilliant evocation of small-town life on the wrong side of the tracks, of the rhythms of church, the country and the one place in town where every soul gathered, the general store in 1930s Stamps, Arkansas.

Read it again, my dad's wife suggested. But this time read it through the eyes of a 15-year-old.

I picked up my copy and re-read parts of it, and sure enough, peering through a different lens, I saw things very differently. Caged Bird deals with important themes: racism and prejudice. Recovering strength amidst tragedy. Even the importance of faith. But some of the material is undeniably explicit, and it makes an indelible impression precisely because of Angelou's skill as a writer.

Lorrie was upset. But she resolved to handle her objections in a respectful manner. She approached Caitlin's teacher, then worked her way up the school's chain of command, informing them in private that she didn't want her daughter to read any further in the book or participate in class discussions about it. And, she asked, just how did it end up in the sophomore curriculum to begin with, when her research indicated that most school districts avoided Caged Bird because of its adult content, and its inclusion in high-school curricula had proved controversial in many other locales?

Since parents hold the primary responsibility for their children's education -- or so the district righteously proclaimed in its core values statement -- why weren't they informed about the school's choice of such a potentially objectionable work?

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While school authorities mulled those questions, Lorrie and her husband, Dave, requested an interim solution for Caitlin. She was parked at the end of the hallway in a study carrel, where she worked through an alternate but hardly parallel work, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

Little did she know she would trigger an "international incident," as Lorrie calls it, in which one family's act of conscience would be compared to book-burning in Nazi Germany. Because school officials and community members wouldn't exercise nearly as much discretion as Caitlin's family, and soon they'd tap into a city's simmering prejudice against culturally conservative Christians.

The acceptable bigotry. —Julie Lyons

Next week in Bible Girl: The defecatory substance hits the fan in "Fondy."

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