BOONE — By temperament and training, Mary Kent Whitaker is a mild-mannered English teacher who likes nothing more than guiding her young charges through a world of ideas.

By circumstance and forces not of her own choosing, Whitaker has turned into a reluctant but determined proponent for freedom of speech and expression.

She’s tried reasoning with the unreasonable (my words, not hers), stood before an angry mob that is figuratively trying to run her out of town and become something of an underground cause célèbre.

All because she asked some smart kids to read a book that might make them think.

“I’ve taught (at Watauga High) for a long time, and I think I’ve established a pretty good reputation,” Whitaker said. “’I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Snowballing disagreement

The situation started in the fall when a parent, Chastity Lesesne, objected to Whitaker’s plan to teach “The House of Spirits Reader,” a novel by Isabel Allende, in honors English class.

Lesesne, who has declined interview requests, didn’t like that the book included graphic depictions of sexual situations and called it “pornographic and tortuous content” in communications with school officials.

Instead of simply choosing an option available to any other parent – having her kid read a different book – Lesesne filed a formal complaint and asked that the book be banned. Two different committees of school officials (and a pediatrician) reviewed the book and voted to keep it in the curriculum.

With each step, a disagreement turned into a larger dispute before becoming a full-fledged controversy. The county school board held a public meeting Monday night that attracted a packed house; a decision on banning the book is expected later this month.

No less a figure than Franklin Graham – son of the Rev. Billy, founder of Samaritan’s Purse and influential Watauga County resident – weighed in.

“As a parent and grandparent, I’m very concerned about what our children are asked to read and, in some cases, forced to read,” he said in a prepared statement.

Taken at its face, that statement is ludicrous. Whitaker and Watauga High teachers have gone out of their way to offer students an alternative. Anyone with an objection was allowed to read “Moby Dick” instead.

Students and parents such as Craig Fischer, who had actually read “The House of Spirits” and not just the racy bits, rallied around Whitaker.

“Obviously I have a professional stake in books being banned, but I was really surprised,” said Fischer, an associate professor of English at Appalachian State University whose son was in Whitaker’s class last year. “I have taught in Mary Kent Whitaker’s class and she seems to be to be fair and intellectually honest with the kids. This is for an honors class, and that’s supposed to prepare you to think on your own and for college.”

Unintended consequence

More than one observer on both sides has tossed out the phrase “Blue Bubble” as a description for the controversy. The none-too-subtle implication being that this is nothing more than a classic town vs. gown confrontation.

A horrible piece of literary filth — again, my words — is being drummed into the virgin ears of innocent teen-age cherubs by godless egg-heads at Appalachian determined that kids get a world view that extends beyond the borders of little old Watauga County.

Here’s what the critics don’t mention so much, though. “The House of Spirits Reader” has been reviewed and recommended for all sophomores by the N.C. Department of Instruction.

The book is about three generations of a family forced into exile by a dictator who took power by means of a coup – very undemocratic. At its core, the novel is a story of hope and forgiveness and justice.

Of 120 students who enrolled in honors English in the fall, just eight requested to read the alternate. This semester, despite the uproar and the fact that teaching the book is on hold, only four students (out of 45) asked for an alternate.

Even funnier to my way of thinking, all the bellyaching might well have had a boomerang effect. What generally happens when you tell a teenager not to look at something?

“Students have gotten copies and passed them around like contraband,” Whitaker said. “While I appreciate that, I would much rather lead students through the book so they get the context and history of it. It’s a challenging book.”

If there’s an upside to this unseemly – and frankly, un-American – episode, it’s this: in the hours before and after Monday’s public hearing, a stream of students, parents and supporters flooded Whitaker’s room with flower, gifts and notes of encouragement.

“Students were in my room talking about the book and the idea of banning books from the curriculum. It was a mature and sophisticated and compassionate discussion.”

In other words, it’s exactly the sort of thing you hope for in a high school classroom.

ssexton@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7481

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