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Board Bans 'Catcher in the Rye' From High School English Class

September 12, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

Boron High School students will not be studying "The Catcher in the Rye" this year because of a recent school board decision to remove the critically acclaimed novel from the school reading list after some parents said its content was unsuitable for teen-agers.

But later this month, students in Shelley Keller-Gage's English class will read "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury's novel about a future in which government has banned individual thinking, television dominates society and firemen burn books.

Keller-Gage said Monday that the presence of "Fahrenheit 451" in her curriculum is not intended as retaliation at the Muroc Joint Unified School District board for banning the study of "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel about the adolescent crisis of Holden Caulfield. The district serves about 3,000 students who live in and around Boron, a desert town in the northeastern Antelope Valley.

"I taught 'Fahrenheit 451' last fall," Keller-Gage said. "I'm not doing it in relation to the school board decision. It is an ironic coincidence, you might say."

Parents' Campaign

In May, a group of parents mounted a campaign against "The Catcher in the Rye" when Keller-Gage was teaching it to freshmen and sophomores, although the book had been taught for several years without incident. Opponents criticized the book's profanity, saying the novel was blasphemous and promoted anti-family values.

Last month, the school board voted 4-1 to remove Salinger's novel from a 70-book reading list for high school students. However, the book remains in both the school and local libraries, where it has gained more readers because of the controversy, school officials said.

The teacher's quiet and passionate defense of "The Catcher in the Rye" has made Keller-Gage, a 35-year-old Boron native, the subject of newspaper and television profiles focusing on a nationwide rise in efforts to ban books in public schools.

"It's a dangerous step," she said of the ban. "It's a few townspeople telling us how to teach our kids. It isn't something I asked for, but it is a cause that I believe in and I do believe there has been an injustice done."

Keller-Gage, who gave students the option of studying alternate books if their parents objected to the Salinger novel, said the board has suppressed a widely taught literary classic. The book is known for the funny, poignant and foul-mouthed narration of Caulfield, a troubled preparatory-school student from New York who has become a quintessential antihero of American literature.

Keller-Gage said the chronicle of Caulfield's adolescent odyssey drew special interest from her teen-age students, including some who shun books regardless of their content.

On the other hand, school board President Jim Summers said he reread the book recently and was not impressed. "I had a hard time staying with it," he said. "I don't know who considers it a literary classic."

And he said the board decision has drawn far less interest from district residents than from outsiders and the media.

'We Restricted It'

"I don't consider this a ban," said Summers, who owns a local service station and spoke highly of Keller-Gage as a teacher. "We restricted it, that's true. But the book is in the library. More kids are going to read it now as a result of all this. . . . And they're going to get a fine education without that book on the reading list."

Summers said he did not think the removal of the book would result in new efforts to exclude books from the curriculum. He said he had no problem with Keller-Gage's comments on the matter or her decision to teach "Fahrenheit 451."

Summers said the action was justified because of complaints from at least 20 parents. Keller-Gage said the parents of about 10 out of approximately 150 English students complained initially, and said opponents of the book declined her request to discuss the book at subsequent parent meetings.

Local resident and religious activist Patty Salazar said she supports the board action because the novel "doesn't belong in a public high school."

"It uses the Lord's name in vain 200 times," she said. "That's enough reason to ban it right there. They say it describes reality. I say let's back up from reality. Let's go backwards. Let's go back to when we didn't have an immoral society."

The novel's profanity and sexual references drew scandalized reactions in the 1950s but the criticism faded as literature and movies of the 1960s and 1970s made it seem tame in comparison, according to The Dictionary of Literary Biography. The dictionary said the novel is considered a prominent work of post-World War II American fiction.

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