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'Caged Bird': Let It Sing

November 13, 1988

The beautifully written autobiography tells of a young black girl who learned to savor Shakespeare secretly, because he was white; who helped her crippled uncle hide in a barrel of potatoes to avoid being hanged by the Ku Klux Klan; who was molested and raped by her mother's boyfriend; who was denied care by a white dentist when she was in pain, because he would rather put his hand in a dog's mouth; and who, at 15, became the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco and later a critically acclaimed author.

But the book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, is in danger of being pulled from the curriculum of ninth-grade honors classes at Vista High School because some parents object to the brief but graphic descriptions of the rape and molestation, saying they are not appropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.

Pulling the book would be unfortunate, especially at a time when school districts are searching for ways to reinvigorate teaching. Part of that effort involves giving teachers more of a say in the educational process and rewarding creativity and dedication. Second-guessing a decision by a teacher to use a state-approved book because a few parents object is likely to tell teachers that they should only choose what is safe and non-controversial and that the effort to be creative is not worth it.

Vista High School teacher Sandi Barnes faced such a dilemma when a parent vociferously objected to Angelou's book. To try to head off controversy, Barnes says, she deleted the rape and molestation chapters from the reading assignments. But more complaints came, prompting a review by a district committee of English teachers, who voted 19 to 3 to keep the book--but gave parents the choice of having their children read another book. This week the matter goes to the Vista Unified School District board.

Barnes says the book was chosen not just for its literary merit, but also to teach students about racism and overcoming obstacles. Further, because the ninth-graders are about the same age as the book's Maya Angelou, Barnes thinks they should be able to identify with her.

The rape and molestation passages are a small part of the overall book. And description of the violation goes beyond the physical. Angelou also intimately describes her feelings: "The act of rape on an 8-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot."

Literature is supposed to widen horizons, open windows on other cultures, philosophies and experiences. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" does that. And what better place is there than school and home to read about and discuss such issues as racism, incest, sex and pregnancy?

We hope that the Vista school board will stand by the district's teachers' compromise and keep the book in the ninth-grade curriculum. If the protesting parents do not want their children to read the material, the children should be able to read an alternate. But the majority of students should not be deprived of good literature.

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