An Open Letter to the Dubuque Community School District

Dear Superintendent Rheingans, Principal Kolker, Members of the School Board, and Members of the Review Committee:

I am an alumna of Hempstead High School (‘02) who has spent my entire adult life working with youth. After finishing college I taught middle school for three years while completing my Masters in Education. I went on to complete a Masters of Library and Information Science and currently work as a librarian at Chicago Public Library. In my role as a librarian for CPL, I sit on the committee which reviews newly published teen books and curates our yearly Best of the Best List of recommendations to teachers, librarians, and readers across the country. In short, a large part of my chosen profession is making the kind of decisions that the instructor made when selecting Perks of Being a Wallflower for inclusion in the curriculum for Contemporary Literature.

I am proud to be a Mustang. I am proud of the education I received as a student at Hempstead High School. I have worked with and for schools around the country and so I know first-hand that not everyone is so lucky. I had teachers who opened my mind, who guided me as I confronted new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas that helped me grow as a person and articulate more clearly who I am and what I believe. Teachers who prepared me for a world full of opportunity and wonderful diversity. And though there were subjects I enjoyed more than others – knowledge of the inner workings of a frog have yet to yield tangible benefits in my adult life – I am happy to have studied them, if only in the knowledge that someone in my class is where they are today because of that knowledge, even if it isn’t me.

And so I am dismayed, appalled, and disappointed to learn that the District is considering the removal of Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky from the Contemporary Literature curriculum.

In the library world, we talk about books as mirrors and windows. We all need books that mirror our own experiences back to us, and we also need books that provide a window into other people’s lives. Perks of Being a Wallflower rather uniquely, served both these functions in my education.

I first read Perks of Being a Wallflower as a teenager when I was struggling with the knowledge that I am a lesbian. I grew up in Dubuque, and though I had a few gay friends, when I looked at the bigger world at that time, I had no role models. No representation. No one I could point to as an example for who I could become. Perks was the first book I ever read that had a character who identified as LGBTQ. It became a mirror for my own identity and a turning point in my life. I realized I was not alone. And though I had not, at the time of my first reading, experienced many of the other challenges Charlie encounters, this book gave me a window into the lives of teens who had. Knowledge is always power. Denying teens knowledge, denying them a safe place to explore the darker aspects of our world denies them the opportunity to grow into the adults they are meant to be.

In Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie experiences sexual abuse and witnesses violence. He has friends who do drugs and a sister who gets pregnant. Charlie goes through some rough things, but at the end of the book, he has become a stronger person. He has risen above these challenges.

If a book addressing such topics is removed from the curriculum, you must consider what that says to students who have experienced these things.

Some kids experience sexual abuse, and witness violence. Some have friends who do drugs. Some have sisters who get pregnant. These kids exist at Hempstead High School and all across the country and pretending that they don’t is an act of abuse against them. If you remove this book, if you deem it “inappropriate,” what message are you sending to those teens?

You are telling them that they are “inappropriate.”
That their lives and their very existence is something to be ashamed of and hide away because it makes others uncomfortable.
You are telling real teens who, I assure you, attend Hempstead High School, that they are not even worth the breath it takes to tell their stories.
You are telling students who do not experience these things, that those who do aren’t worthy of their empathy or their consideration, or worse that they do not exist.
You are telling teens that it is simply not possible to rise above difficult challenges or circumstances. That there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Ask yourself, are you really comfortable with that?

I could write as many words on the literary importance of Perks of Being a Wallflower as there are in the work itself. I could dissect it as a superior example of an epistolary novel, discuss the rich presentation of a slightly unreliable narrator, wax poetic about the stunning language used to convey heavy and complicated topics.

Or you could just let the instructor teach it in her class, because she will surely do all these things better than I can since she is a highly educated professional who has dedicated her life to teaching teenagers about literature. We must trust teachers in their decisions just as we trust a doctor to prescribe medicine for an illness. When we start dictating to teachers what they can and cannot say, what they can and cannot teach, all is lost. Many books we now consider classics were once considered controversial. Grappling with uncomfortable ideas is how we grow.

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

We talk a lot about freedom in this country, but the center of freedom is choice. We have the freedom to choose for ourselves, but we do not have the right to restrict that freedom for others simply because we disagree with their choices. Removing a book from the curriculum of a class restricts the freedom of others. It restricts the choices of the teachers in selecting material according to their expert knowledge in lieu of amateur opinions based on personally held beliefs. It restricts the choices of other parents to make decisions for their own children. It restricts the choices of the students who enroll in the class, whose education has been stifled.

Parents have the right to enroll their teens in the school of their choice, whether public, private, alternative, or homeschool. However once that choice is made, they do not have the right to bend the education provided at that school to their own personal whims. They have the right to request an alternative assignment, or – since Contemporary Literature is an elective and not a required class – to enroll their teen in a different elective course. They do not have the right to alter the educational experience of a class because subject matter makes them afraid.

As a public school, Hempstead has an obligation to teach all students. Students of different beliefs. Students of different experiences. Students who are gay. Who experience sexual abuse and witness violence. Who do drugs and get pregnant and know people who do these things. Students who will, at some point in their life, encounter other humans who disagree with them about something.

The list of acclaims for Perks of Being a Wallflower  is long and prestigious. It has earned its place in the contemporary canon through the opinions of experts in the fields of literature, librarianship, and education. The argument that this particular book belongs in this particular class is hard to overstate, and the idea that it could be toppled by a small group of adults who fear the reality of life makes me sad. But more than that, a challenge of this nature threatens the very freedom on which our country and our public educational system was founded. Removing a book from the curriculum, tying a teacher’s hands, dictating to educators the very foundation of their profession takes the freedom to choose from every teacher, every parent and every student who attends Hempstead High School.

As an alumna, a teacher, a librarian, and a reader, I beg the committee and the School Board to defend the rights of teachers and students and to keep Perks of Being a Wallflower in the curriculum at Hempstead High School.

Sarah Alexander
Librarian, Chicago Public Library
Hempstead High School Class of 2002

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