An Open Letter: HPISD Book "Suspensions"

To Whom it May Concern,

As an alumna of Highland Park High School, an author, and a former AP English teacher, finding reports in my Facebook feed that HPISD allowed the shrieks of unhappy parents to undermine the integrity of the HPHS’ English Department curriculum is disturbing.

None of the books in question -- when read in their entirety -- are inappropriate for high school students. Sacrificing quality literature in this seemingly minor quibble signals a dissolution in the academic standards that HPISD touts so proudly. No educational institution committed to “an unyielding commitment to excellence” which brags that it will “empower each student to become an eager lifelong learner” then censors that student’s literary experience.

No. HPISD kotowed to a group of parents squeamish about the truth that their children are growing up. Are these same parents limiting their teen’s access to the ubiquitous music that promotes misogyny? Do they limit their kids to G-rated movies? Have they removed The Song of Solomon from their family Bibles? Do they allow their children to look at the works of Picasso or Matisse or Michelangelo?

These are parenting issues not educational ones, to be sure, but the students at HPHS are sheltered and privileged. These privileges afford them powers of which they are not even aware because they have no contact with the powerless in their daily lives. They do not step over the homeless sleeping in doorways on their way to school. They do not depend on free meals at school to fill their empty bellies. They do not even consider the inherent power that their race, their gender, their socioeconomic status afford them -- because they do not need to. And if they never encounter books like The Song of Solomon or The Working Poor, they may never develop that which is most important in growing a whole and decent human being: empathy.

Many of the parents at the center and on the fringes of this screaming match were my classmates at HPHS. Some of them were even in my AP English classes. When I went off to a prestigious liberal arts college, I was fantastically prepared for school -- as my classmates were, I am sure. But I quickly realized one thing: my high school reading curriculum was composed almost exclusively of dead white guys -- with a few dead white girls thrown in for good measure. I had never read Toni Morrison. I had never read Edwidge Danticat. I had never read Booker T. Washington or Sherman Alexie or Pablo Neruda. And I was the poorer for it. Had those parents digested both Shakespeare and Siddhartha within the halls of High Park High, the school we love so dear, they might be more empathetic, more sophisticated, and more judicious in wielding their tremendous power -- in this context and beyond.

Books are powerful tools -- especially books that shine a light on lives and experiences that people might not ever have otherwise. I have had many powerful conversations with my students launched from the pages of books and the sometimes-controversial material we would cover. There is a limit. I agree. And we must always remember that high school students are not adults -- they are in that murky, shadowland between childhood and adulthood, straining to be grown and yet longing for the comfort of youth, too.

The more we talk about their adult experiences in open, honest, and loving ways, the better they can navigate those experiences. And trust me, they are having those adult experiences whether we want them to have them or not. Indeed, the lyrics of popular songs, the subject matter of blockbuster films, the online content at their fingertips, and the tenets of highly-rated television shows are much more disturbing than any of the books on the “suspended” list.

But there is something far more insidious going on here. HPISD’s actions tip the balance of power in favor of the parents in what has become a battleground: the classroom as consumer marketplace. This isn’t isolated in HPISD. From sea to shining sea financially-empowered parents have declared themselves educational expert, judge, and arbiter in disputes ranging from grading practices and disciplinary measures to college placement practices and curriculum. But being a doctor or an attorney or a nuclear physicist or a former high school student in no way equates to being a professional educator. Parents may have opinions, but teachers are trained to make decisions for students for which parents are ill-equipped.

So, I am calling upon you, Dr. Orr and the School Board, to trust the professionals you have hired -- your English department. They are competent, intelligent, highly-skilled educators who, in this case, know better than the parents, what is best for the young people of HPHS. Their book choices show a keen understanding of their student body and a desire to expose their students to a range of voices and a diversity of perspectives. And their job is to educate the next generation of a republic deeply divided. Trust your teachers to do their job.


Angela K. Nickerson