The Absolutely True Story of a Book-On Pause


Jacob Prisament, Managing Editor


“It doesn’t help anyone to remain silent,” concludes a letter recently sent to school staff, including the Superintendent and middle school Principal, from the Students For Free Speech (SFFS), a group of self-organized eighth graders. The group was created by Natalie Garson, who found the decision to put The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian on pause two months ago “kind of shocking. […] I didn’t even know the n-word was in the book. My class hadn’t gotten to that part, so I had no idea what the issue was.”


What Happened    

To understand how the school arrived at this point requires a return to the morning of December 8th and a look at a number of events that followed, including a tumultuous Board of Education meeting that took place on December 21st.    

Mr. Fariello, a full-year leave replacement teacher who was, at the time, also covering Ms. Forman’s 8th grade English class, was teaching a contextual lesson on the Carlisle Indian School, which attempted to force Native American children on reservations to assimilate to white culture and learn how to do traditionally western jobs. In his words, “We were having a discussion about how that is now perceived as completely and vilely racist in that [General Richard Henry Pratt] was trying to strip them of their culture and make them more white.” 

This conversation led to reading a section of The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, a novel loosely based on Sherman Alexie’s upbringing on a reservation and his move to a predominantly white high school.  The book, which was introduced to the district over a decade ago by the Diversity Committee at the time, was taught in the high school for many years and was recently moved down to 8th grade.  

Where the 8th graders were in their reading of the book, Junior, the main character, is starting out at Reardon, a predominantly white high school where he hopes to further his education and attain a better life. In this scene, which Mr. Fariello was reading out loud to the class, Roger, one of the kids at the high school, insults Junior by repeating a racist trope involving a sex act and using the n-word. This is followed by Junior thinking “I felt like Roger had kicked me in the face. That was the most racist thing I’d ever heard in my life.” 

Mr. Fariello, while reading this, said the n-word out loud. As reported by staff members who followed up on the incident, due to this, a student of color in the class, who was attending remotely, felt upset and uncomfortable. The class had previously discussed the use of harsh and offensive language in the book, but, according to students and administration, there was not a significant discussion of the use of the n-word after it was said during that particular class period.

Mr. Fariello spoke of how the fact that many of the students are remote poses challenges in situations like this in that he had few visual queues that something had gone wrong in the class. Unlike during a normal year, there was no opportunity for him to see the pain in his student’s eyes and pause the class to discuss the use of the n-word or to try to help his student before it became a larger problem.        


The Following Days

After the class, the student’s parents reached out to Ms. Spirelli, the middle school principal, who then notified Mr. Fariello about what had occurred. When he heard about his student, Mr. Fariello was horrified. “I felt so terrible that I had caused harm to anyone, any one of my students.” 

Ms. Spirelli began discussions about how to move forward, talking with Mr. Fariello and Mr. Blum, the 6-12 English Department chairperson, to get context about the book. She also had a conversation with the student’s parents about what to do. The parents suggested an alternative assignment, and for a day or two this was seen as the plan to move forward. 

During this time, Mr. Blum had a conversation with Ms. Szymanski, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, which he thought went well, and he left with the impression that Mr. Fariello and Ms. Spirelli would speak with the parents to accept the parents’ suggestion of an alternative assignment.

However, he was left feeling frustrated the next morning when he learned that Dr. Henning-Piedmonte had spoken with the parents the previous night and that an email from Ms. Spirelli had been sent out saying the book had been put on pause. 

Explaining her reasoning, Dr. Henning-Piedmonte said, “It was a situation where I personally felt that we need to just hit the stop button and figure out how to make sure that as we move forward we know what to do with this. What’s the process, how do we convey to parents how these types of texts are taught? What is it that needs to be shared when we approach these types of texts? How do we inform parents and talk to children to get them ready? […] The pause was to think about [these questions] as a next step.”

To clarify the difference between a pause and some of the other words that have been used to describe the action, such as “ban,” the term pause meant that the book was not removed from the library or taken out of children’s hands. Rather, it was just no longer going to be taught as part of the school curriculum. This removal is also not necessarily permanent, and under the proper circumstance the book could be used in future years.

Ms. Spirelli explained that the reason for the shift from the initial solution, which would have had the student taking on an alternative assignment, to the new decision to pause the book for all students, came about through discussions with the parents and other staff members. “After talking with others it was brought to light that [the alternative assignment] marginalized the student even more and made them feel even more singled out by having them do a different assignment then the rest of the class. So it was then decided to pause the book at that time.” 

The “pause” frustrated many teachers who had supported the idea of an alternative assignment and felt that the book was being put on pause for reasons that seemed sudden and somewhat arbitrary. Because teachers were not privy to the nature of the discussions between administration and the parents, many were unsure of why such a sudden change had occurred.


The Board Meeting 

As it was, many community members voiced their concerns, labelling the situation as “censorship.” This culminated in a heated Board of Education meeting, with some parties speaking out about feeling offended by the comments of others. Additionally, three groups read letters to the board objecting to the actions that had occurred: a letter signed by all the 6-12 district department heads, another from 10 english teachers, and a third endorsed by the board members of the Hastings Library. 

One of the discussion points raised at the meeting was that the administrators had not read the book at the time of making their decision. Ms. Szymanski acknowledged this and said that they had since read the book, in the time between the incident and the Board meeting, and also noted, “We also reached out to a consultant with whom we’re working to support culturally responsive pedagogies for her thinking, and she shared some concerns, specifically related to the author in general. So not just the text but also the author and conditions surrounding that.” 

This consultant, Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, should be a familiar name to the HHS community as she presented at the recent Racial Equity Learning Day. 

Ms. Walters, a high school english teacher, speaking to me about the situation in general, said, “Well, I think for me a big problem is reducing this book down to that one sentence.”

With that in mind, some have questioned why the decision was not held off at least a couple of days to allow administrators to read the whole book first and to be able to study the full context of the quotation.    

Dr. Detra Price-Dennis’s, who was not in attendance at the board meeting, also started another conversation about the book by mentioning that Alexie’s past, which includes allegations of sexual assault and mistreatment of woman, should be considered as a reason the book maybe should not be used in the future while corresponding with administrators. This question of whether an artist’s past should be considered when we view his, her, or their work, discussed in another article in this issue, “Should we Separate the Art From the Artist” by Julia Rotiroti,  is a difficult one with legitimately strong arguments on both sides.

When asked about this, Ms. Spirelli said, “I don’t think it should be the end-all, be-all if somebody made a mistake in their history. […] We’re forgiving individuals. But I’m sure a line would be crossed at some point where we would say there is another author out there, who doesn’t have this history or didn’t make these mistakes. Let’s explore that. Or maybe we would say: you know what? This book has so much value that we can look past those mistakes and those histories. Let’s include it, but let’s discuss it, let’s bring it up, let’s share with our students and let them know.”

At the board meeting a back and forth also occurred with one board member trying to get an understanding from administrators regarding how involved teachers had been in the decision, and if they specifically had been allowed to give input regarding the decision to pause the book. To this second question the response was that Mr. Blum had had a meeting scheduled with the administrators, which they claimed he cancelled.

When asked about this after the meeting, while Mr. Blum agreed that he had cancelled a meeting to discuss the pausing, but he also felt that what was said was misleading because the meeting was scheduled for the week after the decision had already been made at which point he felt that he couldn’t achieve anything by talking further. 

Furthermore, Mr. Fariello as the teacher of the student told me, “As a full year non-tenured leave replacement my involvement was minimal to nil once [the book] got paused.”

Timothy Baer, a past board member, spoke near the end of the meeting and suggested. “A lot of talk has been about trust and repair. And in my years on the board and my over 15 years of connection with the district though Sarah [Walters, Mr. Baer’s wife], I have never seen this level of tension. So my ask is for the board to work directly with Valerie and Melissa to repair, which is not going to happen by happenstance. It’s going to happen through very intentional bringing together of people who feel impacted enough to speak tonight. And doing less than that and hoping for a different response, I worry as a community member what the results would look like in two to three years.”


Conversations Continue 

The only sentiment completely shared by everyone I spoke to was a relief articulated best by Ms. Walters, “I was really pleased that the whole time there was never conversation from the kids where they thought the affected student shouldn’t have felt what they were feeling. There was never talk of overreacting or that they shouldn’t, that was not it at all, which I was really pleased to see. They really focused on why all of a sudden was this removed.”  

In an attempt to decipher their feelings and address rumors swirling around the situation, Natalie Garson setup SFFS’s first meeting, which she explained “was just going to be a talk about the book banning, so we could have a forum to discuss. There were 25 kids involved in the first meeting, which completely exceeded my expectations. I just sent it around to, I think, 10 kids and they just passed it on.”       

“We talked for about an hour and a half. And a lot of people disagreed with each other. It was just an amazing conversation. […] We decided at the end [of the meeting that the] conversation should go on longer, so I made a google classroom page” with the goal of meeting again to talk about “current events and other things happening at school.” Now the group is fully established, and they have continued to have biweekly meetings on Thursdays. 

Charlotte Cho, a student in SFFS, described the meeting as “a place we can talk about things that we wouldn’t normally be able to talk about in school, or wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about in school.” 

Similarly, Jacob Levan said, “It was the most actually responsible any of us as a group of eighth graders [have been] in my perspective to actually talk about something important.”

Regarding SFFS’s letter and actions, Ms. Spirelli said. “I’m proud of them for exercising their right, and I’m proud of them for coming together, and I’m proud of them for putting their emotions to paper and for handling it in the way they did. And they should be able to have a voice and share their voice.” 

Ms. Walters, whose daughter is in eighth grade, said. “Even the student who felt uncomfortable was on the call. So, you know, in some ways to me it made me wonder whether we were underestimating the way students could work through this and did they need it just taken away. It sort of showed me, as a parent, great interest on their part to keep talking both about the situation and about the book. I felt they did it in a very mature way.”

This stands in contrast to how some students of color in similar situations at other schools have been treated. In a recent article from The New York Times, Marie Fazio wrote about the experience of a student of color regarding the book Fences. “[The mother] said her main concern was that the themes were too mature for the group and would foster stereotypes about Black families. After a round of emails and a meeting with Ms. Fox, the school agreed to an alternate lesson for her son, Jamel Van Rensalier, 14. The school also discussed complaints with the parents of four other students. Ms. Fox’s disagreement escalated. She took it to a parents’ Facebook group, and later fired off an email that school officials said was a personal attack on a faculty member.

On the day after Thanksgiving, the school notified Ms. Fox that Jamel would no longer be attending the school, the only one he had ever known.”

Stories like Jamel’s and the situation here at Hastings underscore that not all students experience the classroom in the same way and a good deal of research has looked into the racial stressors that students of color, especially in predominantly white schools, may experience on a day-to-day basis.  The question becomes how can we build curriculum that allows for greater discussions that respect the range of feelings of all students in the classroom

Mr. Blum, the English Department chair, touched on the missed opportunities he felt the situation created. “While I can understand why the incident might have caused some real discomfort, I also think it was a really great opportunity for people to talk about issues that our district encourages us, requires us, to talk about. So, it seemed like a missed opportunity on many, many levels.”

“I’m really concerned that many of us are really skilled in having these conversations as professionals and that’s not being fully considered,” explained Ms. Walters.  

That’s not to say nothing has been done to engage eighth graders within the school setting on this issue. Ms. Spirelli, along with Ms. Mateo-Toledo and Ms. Bellas, has recently been visiting eighth grade classes to start discussions in the classroom. The discussions have gone over the topic of controversial language in literature, the added significance history can have on controversial language, and  clarified what had happened and that the book had not been “banned.” Students were also given the opportunity to anonymously share their feelings through a website application.         


Moving Forward

Ms. Spirelli said, “I am thoroughly impressed with the maturity and articulation and vocabulary and understanding of our eighth grade students. I really, really am. So I would also say that it’s all about the delivery. It’s all about the context that the teacher provides to the students. So no matter what school you’re in, it’s the context. If the situation is approached with a culturally responsive perspective, with ‘let’s talk about the n-word, let’s talk about these concepts [….] let’s look at it and have proper conversations,’ I would value that, and I would emphasize  the [need for a] delivery method for any lesson to be taught with any controversial language.” 

These two very separate issues—the worth of Sheman Alexie’s book as a text to use for eighth grade and the way in which difficult topics must be taught—are interconnected but also each worth further exploration. While controversies around Alexie’s past may have contributed to the decision that was made, fundamentally issues of pedagogy, the way something is taught, came up over and over in the discussions of why the book was paused. 

For example, one thing that came up in our interviews was the use of “popcorn reading” in classes.  This is a technique in which students take turns reading aloud. Tyler Levan explained, “The teacher might call the next kid’s name, and the next sentence they have to read might make them feel uncomfortable.”  Even in scenes not like the one at the center of this current issue, students reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian might have had to encounter or read aloud curse words or words related to mature topics like masturbation, alcoholism, addiction, and death. 

It’s worth noting that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may not be taught again in the future, but for reasons outside of the initial cause of the pause. Some teachers have said they have no particular affiliation or need to teach that specific text, and the reading level may not be challenging enough for some high school students. Moreover, while it does importantly introduce issues around Native American reservations and identity to students, there are other texts that can and hopefully will be found that achieve that purpose from an author without a controversial past.       

One of the biggest worries for teachers is moving forward how they can feel safe in teaching their lessons without worrying about their texts being removed from the curriculum without thorough discussion. 

On this topic Dr. Henning-Piedmonte said, “ I think we need to think about our current social, political, and racial climate. This year is different from 5 years ago or 15 years ago or 20 years ago when the text may have originally been chosen. What do we know now? How do we process the environment children have been immersed in, and how they are seeing their representation in the text they are reading? Is it a representation that is uplifting or is it a representation that marginalizes and dehumanizes? If the adults are approaching the examination of their choices from that lens then nothing would be taken out. Because we would devise ways to approach it thoughtfully and carefully so the purpose of using that text is well articulated and well examined, and we prepare the children and the families before the particular text is discussed and read. And if they know that, I don’t know that anything that is currently being taught would ever need to be removed unless there is a decision that is made by the individuals who chose the book and has been making decisions about using it.”

Within classrooms themselves there is also much progress that can and needs to be made to make students feel safe and open to discussion. Mr. Blum said this change requires, ”Making the classroom a place that feels safe to have unsettling conversations. […] It comes from the tenor and tone of the community in the building and out of the building. It comes from the teachers developing trust with their students. It’s really, really hard to do and hybrid doesn’t help things at all, obviously. Not being able to see someone’s face when they speak doesn’t help things. I think we have to try to remind people that what we are doing is essential, but really, really difficult, and we are going to make mistakes. But if we’re in a place where everyone is so afraid to make mistakes that they can’t raise a question or offer an objection, things like that, we’re not going to get anywhere, so it’s very much a matter of the culture of our schools.”

When I asked students about how these problems could be addressed in the future they had plenty of ideas. One possibility an eighth grader suggested for the future was having multiple book options for each unit and making the classes focused more on the larger themes between the books rather than the content of the individual books. Students could still have smaller book club type discussions about their books with each other and nobody would be forced to read a  text they might not be comfortable with. Students often know what is best for themselves and should be provided with an avenue to share their ideas and opinions with the school on matters that will affect them. 

Already changes are being implemented to ensure this type of situation does not occur again. Teachers in the middle school are letting parents know about all the books that will be used in their classes and what material and issues they contain. 

Ms. Spirelli elaborated on one specific example that recently occurred, “The Watsons go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, was scheduled to be introduced with students as an instructional resource to support the 5th grade’s Civil Rights Unit. A middle school Diverse Book Committee gathered to ensure a thorough analysis of the extent to which the text is culturally responsive before moving forward. We had a thoughtful, collaborative process, inclusive of multiple perspectives, diverse voices, and clear criteria to determine if the novel was culturally responsive. The group decided that this text will continue to be included in the 5th grade repertoire [in the future]. Our process helped us to consider the many and varied nuances of the text, which prompted a recommendation from the group to postpone reading it in order for faculty to engage in learning together and for additional instructional planning to occur.” 

After all of the reporting I had done on this topic and recognizing all of the difficulties that arise from dealing with challenging texts, I wondered if Ms. Spirelli thought that teachers in the district would teach these kinds of books going forward.    

“Oh, I hope so,” she said. “I hope so because I don’t want to shy away from these conversations. I don’t want to shy away from this verbiage. It’s ok to have uncomfortable situations or difficult conversation. It’s about creating this safe place for that, and I think this is where we need to improve as a district. Giving teachers the toolkit, giving teachers the support, giving them the knowledge to improve and enhance their teaching around this.”