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A War Of Words

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Peters is not alone. Suzy Smith says she found a nail driven into one of the tires of her car. Like Peters, her colleague at Ridgeview, Smith is usually easygoing. But in this case, the gloves come off. She says, "I don't know how you can be a teacher and not take it personally.''

Peters and Smith have lived for years in and around Yucaipa, a dusty, sunbaked little town in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, Peters for 16 years and Smith for 22. Both are experienced teachers who have made their careers in the Yucaipa Joint Unified School District. This is their town, a place where people have always tried to get along. That is, until last year, when the school district adopted a controversial 17-book, elementary-level reading series called "Impressions.'' Peters and Smith helped select the series, and they taught from it. And for exercising their professional judgment, they believe, they have been singled out for rough treatment.

Depending on your point of view, "Impressions'' is either a treasure-trove of children's literature or a passport to perdition. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., "Impressions'' is a popular wholelanguage-based anthology of short stories, classic fairy tales, and nursery rhymes, drawing on the work of writers as diverse as Laura Ingalls Wilder and C.S. Lewis, Beverly Cleary and T.S. Eliot, Arnold Lobel and A.A. Milne. Schools in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington now use the series, and it is under consideration in Georgia and New Mexico.

Teachers consider "Impressions'' a lavishly illustrated blend of sophistication and wholesomeness-- challenging, yes, but as innocent as Dick and Jane. And yet, throughout California and in a few towns and cities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, "Impressions'' has aroused the righteous indignation of some parents who see in its pages a challenge to traditional family values. Within its fairy stories and nonsense rhymes--"Beauty and the Beast,'' "In a Dark, Dark Wood,'' "Shut the Windows, Bolt the Doors''--they detect a not-so-subtle emphasis on violence, death, and the occult. Not a few believe they see the hand of Satan himself. One way or another, they want the series out of the schools.

Teachers cry censorship and charge that the parents are attempting to alter the curriculum to reflect fundamentalist Christian beliefs. But parents say they are merely trying to protect their children by exercising their right to influence schoolbook selection to reflect local values.

"This was never a book-banning issue,'' says parent Bob Isenberg, one of the founders of the Parent/Citizen Association of Yucaipa/Calimesa, which sprang up practically overnight in response to the introduction of "Impressions.'' "We're exercising our rights, rights that we've always had, and teachers don't like that. But this is America.''

Bowing to pressure from parents like Isenberg, as well as from several conservative Christian groups, five school districts in Idaho and California have removed "Impressions'' from the curriculum. But in Yucaipa, the dispute has bubbled over into a recall election, with parents attempting to oust two school trustees who voted first to approve the series and later to retain it. The emotional, often ugly feud (see "Verbal Violence,'' page 41), has put teachers on the defensive. Some say they have received harassing telephone calls and, in some cases, physical threats. Not surprisingly, the debate has disrupted the learning environment in Yucaipa schools.

Says Peters: "Teachers go to school each day not knowing what to expect. One morning, there were 40 parents picketing in front of the school. They wanted to come inside and see what we were doing, whether what we were doing was right.''

"It's almost like someone is sitting on your shoulder, just waiting for you to make a mistake,'' adds Smith, an authentic apple-cheeked, curly-haired schoolmarm, whose two grown sons attended district schools. "Classrooms are being torn apart.''

The tragedy, both teachers say, is that in the Yucaipa public schools, harmony had always been the byword. Now, everyone wonders whether the schools--or Yucaipa itself--can ever be the same.

ON THE SURFACE, YUCAIPA seems as unchanging as the San Bernardino Mountains that loom to the east and west, cradling the town like cupped hands. It is a starkly beautiful landscape of rocks, sand, and prickly pear. Yucaipa is close to the Southern California smog belt--Los Angeles is a 90-minute drive west on the San Bernardino Freeway-- but in some ways, Yucaipa might as well be as far away as the moon.

A few thousand feet below the chiseled peaks, in the shops and businesses that line Yucaipa Boulevard, life goes on much as it always has. At the Bit of Country restaurant, blue-shirted school-bus drivers swap gossip over warm apple pie. Old friends sip coffee at Mr. Crum's Donut House, scanning the obits in The Yucaipa News-Mirror, looking for names of people they know. Impulsive couples, defying the gloomy statistics and promising to forsake all others, opt for the fast-food approach to matrimony at the Yucaipa Wedding Chapel ("Open 24 Hours'').

It is a town of contrasts, of old, rusting pickup trucks and new executive haciendas, social statements in sand-colored stucco. Young families, refugees from the smog, have moved in; the population soared from 24,000 to 34,000 between 1984 and 1988. Retirees have arrived, as well, to live in one of the town's numerous mobile-home parks--featureless, tightly packed places with oddly Elysian names like "Yucaipa Land Yacht Harbor'' and "Rancho Del Sol.''

Above all, Yucaipa remains a deeply religious town. On countless front lawns, God-fearing Yucaipans have erected monuments to their faith, swinging metal placards at curbside, like scriptural Burma Shave signs: "The Righteous Shall Be Glad in the Lord'' and "Prepare to Meet Thy God.'' In the window of the old Holsinger's Furniture Store on Yucaipa Boulevard hangs a sign announcing "The New Home of Abundant Life Fellowship, Where God Reigns and Miracles Happen.''

Altogether, Yucaipa supports more than 40 houses of worship: Seventh-Day Adventist, Baptist, Church of Christ, Mormon, Catholic, and more. The Parent/ Citizen Association of Yucaipa/Calimesa, the organization dedicated to removing "Impressions'' from the schools, meets in one of these, the Green Valley Foursquare Church.

Despite the chosen meeting place and the acknowledged traditional religious beliefs of most of its members, PCAYC leader Dennis Riley denies that the group follows a conservative, religious agenda.

Riley defines the issue as the parents' right to have a say in textbook selection. He voices serious reservations about what he sees as the relentlessly dark and supernatural content of the series, stories and poems with no overlying theme of redemption, no happy endings. He sees children being encouraged to write about their innermost thoughts and fears, which, he believes, could constitute an invasion of family privacy. And he tells stories of local children with recurring nightmares being sent to see psychologists to allay the fears stirred up by the sometimes gloomy themes.

'Impressions' presents an abstract caricature of the human form,'' explains Riley, a woolly-bearded man who owns an apple orchard on the outskirts of Yucaipa and who also edits PCAYC's newsletter, The Sentry. (See "Fit To Print?,'' page 44.)

"It takes stories like Anne of Green Gables and grafts gratuitous violence into them. It also contains contemporary fiction of the minimalist genre, like Harriet the Spy and The Great Gilly Hopkins, which offer degrading detail and don't redeem the characters. They're silly and vulgar and crass.''

Relatively few of the stories, Riley says, offer a moral conclusion. And far too many of the series' offerings, he adds, dwell on what he calls "the dark side.'' Three out of five selections, he claims, concern death and dying. Take a look, he says, at the James Stephens poem, "The Wind,'' in one of the 2nd grade texts:

The wind stood up, and gave a shout; He whistled on his fingers, and

Kicked the withered leaves about, And thumped the branches with his hand,

And said he'll kill, and kill, and kill; And so he will! And so he will!

Even if "Impressions'' did encourage children to read, write, and speak more expressively--which Riley frankly doubts--the means would not justify the end. "You don't sacrifice character on the altar of literacy,'' he says.

Paul Jessup, the Yucaipa district's soft-spoken curriculum coordinator, has read most of the stories in the books. He says it's too soon to show concrete performance results, but teachers report that the district is on the right track. "We feel it is already being successful,'' says Jessup, a button-down, self-described political ultraconservative and Bible reader. "Our teachers are pleased with the results they're seeing.''

Jessup has also heard Riley's views and those of other parents, but he simply does not see what they see. He flips open one of the texts to a story by Frank Modell, called "One Zillion Valentines.'' At the end of the story, one little boy gives another little boy a valentine card. Then, on the next page, there is an old traditional rhyme, called "Lavender's Blue.'' One of the lines reads: And we shall be gay, dilly dilly, and we shall both dance....

Some of the parents, Jessup says, put the two together and come up with what amounts to a classroom endorsement of male homosexuality. "They say the juxtaposition has to be more than circumstantial,'' Jessup says. He denies the claim.

One parent, according to The Los Angeles Times, even attempted to make the case that one could see the face of the Devil in an illustration that had been photocopied and turned upside down.)

Nevertheless, Jessup says he respects parents' demands to take part in textbook selection. In fact, he says, parents were invited to inspect the series.

'Impressions'' first came to Yucaipa in the spring of 1989. Teachers in all the district's elementary schools tested three different book series in the hope of selecting one for use in the 1989-90 school year and the following six years, as a transition from basal readers to true whole language--real literature, but without the safety net of textbooks and ready-made lesson plans.

"Our goal is a completely literature-based curriculum,'' says Jessup. "Before 'Impressions,' we were in a skills-based mode. Literature was secondary to the skills being learned in any subject. We're turning that around, with literature as the hub.''

The district displayed all three book series under consideration in the schools and the town library. No one stepped forward to say good or ill about any of them, Jessup says, and when it came time to select the one series, 80 percent of the teachers chose "Impressions.'' Both the school administration and the school board of trustees concurred with the teachers' choice.

In September 1989, "Impressions'' reached the Yucaipa elementary schools. As the school year began, teachers sent notes home to all parents, explaining the change. Still, no complaints. But the honeymoon ended quickly. In October, news reports of parental challenges to the "Impressions'' series in other California districts-- Hacienda La Puente, East Whittier, and Dixon--began circulating in Yucaipa. Soon, the complaints started pouring into Jessup's office.

"We had about a hundred complaints within the first 90 days,'' Jessup says. "And then in November, 150 parents came to our school board meeting.'' About that time, PCAYC came into being.

In response to requests from those parents, the school board ordered a review of the series, to be conducted by a principal, teacher, librarian, and a parent from each elementary school. At the next meeting, this one attended by 1,000 to 1,200 Yucaipa citizens, the review committee gave the "Impressions'' series a clean bill of health. At that time, the board offered parents an alternative--separate classes for their children, drawing exclusively from books on the core literature list.

Even though both Riley and Isenberg claim that most parents share their views, more than 80 percent of the elementary school students in Yucaipa remained in "Impressions'' classrooms. "Since we have alternatives at every cite,'' says Jessup, "I would take that as an indication of parents' satisfaction with the series.''

A few parents did accept the alternative. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the district's children switched to the "core curriculum'' classes, depending on the school. Still, many parents considered the compromise a slap in the face. "Their objection,'' explains Jessup, "was that the alternative was not a textbook. It's not a hard back, and so it would not really be equal.''

To Isenberg, the alternative was tantamount to a declaration of war. Isenberg, a heavyset man with a direct, penetrating gaze, helped organize PCAYC. He's an executive recruiter who drives a long white LTD Crown Victoria, with vanity tags that pose the whimsical question: "8 LIFE EZ.''

At the moment, he says, it ain't so easy. "The alternative was not offered to us,'' he complains. "It was dictated to us.''

Isenberg claims district administrators had told him earlier that there weren't enough sets of books on the core list to go around, and that there were no lesson plans for the books the district did have. Even if there were enough books and lesson plans, Isenberg says he would refuse to accept separate-but-equal status for his daughter and son. For the moment, he has placed them in a private school. "The alternative is out and out segregation,'' he says between drags on a Benson & Hedges menthol.

No matter what the alternative, Isenberg adds, PCAYC will fight as long as "Impressions'' is offered to any child. "My concern is quality material in the classroom,'' he says. "Literature for literature's sake is fine in the public realm. But books in school have more impact. There are overtones and undertones to this series that could give a child a wrong message.'' When asked for a specific example, Isenberg responds: "You can't look at a single story. It's not just one story. The issue is the series.''

IN LIGHT OF THE SCHOOL board's response to PCAYC's concerns, the parents' group initiated a recall campaign against school board president Jan Mishodek and trustee Stephen Miller, eventually gathering 5,603 signatures on a recall petition. Of these, the California courts recently ruled 4,400 valid. To get on the ballot, the group needed only 4,000 names, so Mishodek and Miller will have to face the voters--and four PCAYC-backed candidates--on Nov. 6.

In response to the recall effort, a citizen's group banded together to resist PCAYC. The Committee Opposed to the Recall Election consists mostly of parents, Jessup says, though it is led by a former school trustee, Normal Miller, and a retired teacher and administrator, Nulah Cramer. CORE also enjoys the support, both moral and financial, of the district's teachers. The group argues that the school board must represent all the district's taxpayers--not just the vocal minority.

Although members of the school board have been targeted, on the theory that they are ultimately responsible for policy, other members of the school community believe more may be at stake than the future of two politicians. The real aim, some say, is control over what teachers teach. And to get that control, winning PCAYC candidates might clean house. "Riley wants us out,'' says Jessup. "He's been asking to see administrators' contracts.''

Even though teachers in the district have responded as if they, and not the school board, were under attack, Isenberg denies that PCAYC has targeted teachers. In fact, he sees them as instruments of the board's will, pawns in Yucaipa's passion play.

"This is not a teacher issue,'' he says. "Those teachers will teach whether you give them a book or a rock. Teachers are hired to teach. And who establishes what teachers teach? The school board!''

Despite Isenberg's reassurances, Jan Murphy, a 3rd grade teacher at Yucaipa Elementary School, can't help but wonder: Should teachers feel threatened?

Toward the end of the spring semester last year, Murphy was teaching a two-week unit on Cinderella, taking the children first through an Indian version of the old folk tale featured in "Impressions,'' following up with references to the Disney cartoon, and reading similar stories from other cultures, including French, Egyptian, and Chinese.

"I ended with Grimm's 'Aschenputtel,'

'' she says, "and that's a little bloody. But you're talking about a book my folks bought me the year I was born, in 1950.''

On the day Murphy read the Grimm Brothers' treatment of the hapless Cinderella, a parent happened to be sitting in, listening to how the teacher wrapped it all up. "She heard me tell the children how, at different times, thoughts are expressed by different cultures, by people from different ethnic backgrounds,'' she recalls. "The next thing I know, a school board member was called with a complaint.''

For Murphy, this Cinderella story had a happy ending. At the school board member's request, the principal dropped by to take a look at Murphy's curriculum materials. "I brought it all out, and she said, 'This is wonderful!'' Since then, Murphy has been asked to show other teachers how she uses the stories. "It came full circle. It worked in my favor.''

But things don't always work out that way, says Ann Milne, a 2nd grade teacher at the district's Dunlap Elementary School. Overall, she says, the effect of the anti-"Impressions'' campaign has been chilling.

She also refutes Isenberg's calm disclaimers. "Teachers have been told that they aren't good Christians, that they're Satanists,'' she says. "Well, I've been telling ghost stories for 24 years. I hate to tell you how long I've been using 'In a Dark, Dark Wood.' It also makes me angry as a parent. They're trying to deprive my children of a good series.''

Forrest Turpen says he understands why teachers react so vociferously. "It happens all the time,'' says the executive director of the Christian Educators Association International, a California-based national political group. "They get defensive,'' says Turpen, himself a former teacher and administrator. "Whether we like it or not, that element of humanness gets in the way of what we should really be looking at, which is, what's best for boys and girls?''

CEA is one of several religious groups involved in the effort to remove "Impressions'' from schools, wherever and whenever it turns up. Others include national political groups such as the Citizens for Excellence in Education and the Traditional Values Coalition. What's happening in Yucaipa can be seen as part of a broad-based national campaign, though Turpen denies it. CEA, he says, hasn't offered the Yucaipa parents group much more than information on how to make their voices heard.

Turpen, for one, doesn't understand the Yucaipa school administration's resistance. In California, he says, school districts can choose from among 17 approved reading series.

"Some would say the series presents values that are not consistent with traditional American values,'' says Turpen. "One committee of parents in Stockton [Calif.] reviewed the whole series and found 52 percent of the stories lent themselves to witchcraft.''

Aside from the possible moral concerns, Turpen says the "Impressions'' series is also flawed from an academic viewpoint. For one thing, he says, many of the books have never been screened. Only the texts used in grades 1, 2, and 3 have been approved by the state board of education, he says; a point confirmed by a spokesman for the state. No "content check'' was done on the texts used in kindergarten and the older grades to determine whether they were appropriate for children in those age groups. These books are approved for use, Turpen says, only if local schools petition the state for permission.

In other states where the series is approved or being considered, almost no one shares the view that the series is flawed. If anything, it earns rave reviews.

Take, for example, these comments from a textbook review committee composed of teachers, citizens, and school administrators in Broward County, Fla., hardly a hotbed of liberalism: "[T]he selections are of high interest and stimulating....the illustrations are varied and beautiful.'' And this review from Florida's Dade County: "[A]n excellent program. Moreover, the manuals are comprehensive and instruct teachers in current methods. Our only regret is that the program includes only K-3 and not 4-7.'' (Only the K-3 books were submitted in Florida.)

What CEA and others would like to see in place of "Impressions'' is a reading series with greater emphasis on traditional Judeo-Christian values, stories of personal courage and individual ability. "Impressions,'' Turpen says, offers a more pessimistic approach, emphasizing despair, gloom, and hopelessness. "If you believe what the psychologists are telling us, for those children who have already been traumatized by separation and divorce, there is a good chance that over time this series will add to the confusion in their life.''

To Paul Hauck, a clinical child psychologist in Davis, Calif., more confusion stems from not teaching children to think critically about the issues that will confront them in life.

"These parents don't have the view that you teach children to think independently,'' says Hauck, who reviewed the series out of professional curiosity when the controversy came to nearby Dixon. "They want a teacher who will sit down with the children and tell them what to think.'' Unfortunately, he says, children who grow up with this rigid, black-and-white view of the world often discard those ideals when they learn that life is often more complicated.

Hauck also disagrees with allegations that the series is likely to frighten children. "Frequently, those concerns come out of parents looking at these materials, first, through the eyes of an adult, and, second, looking at them with a biased point of view,'' he says. "Children take a cue from their parents. If parents say, 'This is bad or this is dangerous,' children will look at it and respond in the same way. Parents who are most upset about this tend to have children who also react to it in ways that are upsetting.''

In any case, Hauck suggests, "Impressions'' probably isn't the issue. Parents in Yucaipa and other communities, he says, are really using the controversy to advance a traditional, authoritarian point of view.

Donna Fowler, issues director for People for the American Way, concurs. The nonpartisan constitutional liberties organization has defended "Impressions'' at every turn.

"I think what you see in California is real opportunism on the part of a couple of far-right groups trying to promote their own agenda in the schools,'' Fowler says. "They are straightforwardly pushing a Christian agenda. You've got somebody there who's on a witch hunt, and you can bet they'll find a witch.''

What's happening in Yucaipa is not unusual, Fowler says, and in this case "Impressions'' is only a means to an end. At another time, in another place, the target might be science books that don't give equal treatment to creationism. It isn't simply, she says, a quarrel over local values.

"I'm always a little skeptical about this business of prevailing local values,'' she says. "Public schools are remarkably alike across this country. There are shared values. In 18 school districts in California, 14 went through a careful review process and voted to retain the series with the support of a lot of other parents in the community. Prevailing local values do not support removal of the 'Impressions' series.

"What we've tried to do,'' she says, "is to put this issue in the larger context of what we see as a culture war going on in the country. It's part and parcel of other efforts to attack freedom of expression.''

According to a recent study conducted by the watchdog organization, attacks on textbooks, plays, and supplemental reading rose during the last school year to an all-time high of 244 incidents in 39 states. The study, titled Attacks on Freedom to Learn, noted that the assault on "Impressions'' is one of the most vigorous since the so-called "Scopes II'' controversy in Tennessee in 1985. In that case, far-right censorship groups took court action to ban a reading series that they said offended their religious sensibilities. They won the first judicial round but lost on appeal.

In every instance, Fowler charges, far-right religious groups prey on the fears of community members, typically asking them to sign petitions to support the removal of books that most have never seen.

But their main thrust, she says, is to get their members elected to local school boards. In this, Fowler concludes, "they have not been very successful.''

Dennis Riley, who does not see himself as a religious extremist--he says he doesn't even attend church on a regular basis--would no doubt like to make People for the American Way eat its words come election day.

And he resents being cast in the role of intruder in the affairs of the schools. Riley, whose three children have attended Yucaipa schools, says public education is his business.

"On a local level, people have a right to exercise their own sensibilities when it comes to education,'' Riley says. "We don't want supernatural concepts in the guise of folklore and cultural diversity. Would you rather resist now, when it's still manageable, or wait until it's no longer possible? I'd rather do it now.''

Finally, Riley wants teachers to know that he is not the enemy--even though they have treated him like one: "They want to talk about hate mail,'' he says, laughing. "Come talk to us. We've had insult heaped upon insult; we've been called dangerous radicals and fanatics. It's going to be a long time before that goes away. But we've only attacked the textbooks. We haven't attacked the people.''

Ann Milne, not surprisingly, disagrees. And she reacts viscerally to the suggestion that teachers would blithely continue to use a textbook that hurts children on the orders of the school board. "Do they really think I would pick a book that would be harmful to a child?'' she asks. " I would never harm a child.''

And after seeing the school board's attempts at appeasement rejected, she is beginning to doubt that the Parent/Citizen Association of Yucaipa/Calimesa can ever be fully satisfied. "If we roll over for this,'' she asks, "what are we going to roll over for next?''

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