Student assails school for slicing Pulitzer-winning play from textbook

Thursday, December 14, 2000

Robert Bertrand understands how parents and high school students might
be offended and overwhelmed by Angels in America:
Millennium Approaches
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about
America dealing with the spread of the AIDS epidemic.

After all, Bertrand, a 17-year-old high school student himself,
considers a few parts of the play a bit graphic.

But what he can’t believe is how his school, the Paxon School for
Advanced Studies in Jacksonville, Fla., handled such material — by
cutting it straight out of a textbook.

“The fact is, due to the low funding [received by] the school and
pressure from a religiously driven school board, my principal and teachers were
forced to essentially ‘burn books.’ ” Bertrand said. “Their reason: To keep the
part of the book they actually use.”

Last month, Paxon Principal Jim Williams authorized teachers to slice
Angels in America from the pages of
the Bedford Introduction to
, a college-level text used at the preparatory

The Duval County School Board first banned the play three years ago
after learning that it was being used in a class at Douglas Anderson School of
the Arts. A committee of teachers, parents and media specialists determined
that Angels in America was not
appropriate for the county’s high school students, and recommended that the
board bar it from public classrooms.

The play is the first half of Tony Kushner’s work depicting the United
States in the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic began to spread. The play won the 1993
Pulitzer Prize for drama and several Tony awards, including best play.

“It’s an exceptional work,” Williams said in a telephone interview.
“But my decision had nothing to do with the merits of the play. But some
sections are not appropriate for 14-year-olds.”

The play features many homosexual characters and a few with the AIDS
virus. Williams says the play also contains profanity and a very graphic sex

Williams says Paxon has used the Bedford book for the past four years. Although it
contained Angels in America, the
book had never been contested until recently because the play had never been
used in class, Williams said. It was not on any school reading list nor had it
been assigned to any students, he added.

He said he didn’t even know the play was in the book until the mother
of a ninth-grade boy objected to the play.

“I can see how the play could be deemed offensive,” Bertrand said. “I
just don’t believe they have the right to cut it out of the textbook.”

He said another school in Duval County had tried to remove certain
words from a collegiate dictionary. He didn’t want to see this “editing”
practice happen again.

But he didn’t feel he could wage a battle on his own. That’s why he
called the People for the American Way, a group devoted to combating attacks on
constitutional freedoms.

“It’s hard to believe in this day and age that high schools would be
ripping out Pulitzer Prize-winning plays from textbooks,” said Larry Ottinger
of the group. “As we have said many times, there are a lot of things that can
hurt kids today, but reading Pulitzer Prize-winning plays is not one of

Because Paxon is designated as a college-preparatory school, teachers
often use college-level texts in the classrooms. Williams said the
Bedford anthology was especially
good because it included a breadth of great literature, such as
Oedipus Rex,
Hamlet and the
Importance of Being Earnest, and
numerous commentaries about each work.

“The students can really see how their opinions of the works stack up
against those in the commentaries,” he said.

Williams said he considered using other anthologies but believed this
one was the best for Paxon’s students.

“I decided to take care of the play rather than lose the whole book
itself,” he said.

But Ottinger said he wished the principal had found other means for
addressing objections to the play rather than ripping pages from the book. He
says his group is “looking for ways to address this situation and make sure
nothing like it happens again.”

“We hope that as we enter the 21st century we won’t move backward to a
time of physically mutilating books and censoring children,” he said. “Instead,
we hope we can instill in them a curiosity for learning and the ability to
think critically.”

Williams says he understands such concerns. But he says some material
just isn’t appropriate for high school students.

“I’m very sensitive to issues of censorship,” he said. “But at some
point adults have to draw the line.”

And he dismisses such other remedies as stapling the pages together or
simply warning the students and parents about the play.

“It’s like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull,” Williams
said. “If you tried stapling the pages together, the students would say, ‘Oh,
gosh, what’s that?’ “

But Bertrand called the action “publicly funded book burning” and said
it seemed like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, not modern-day America. But he says he
doesn’t fault others for being upset about the play, just for excising it from
the textbook.

“I’m not fighting against a parent’s right to decide what their kids
read. I’m trying to find better alternatives than cutting the play from the
text,” Bertrand said.

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