Louise Palmer, front row at left, and her daughter, Shaylee Ponder, front row at right, tell the Cass City school board of concerns they have about two books included in Cass City High School's 11th-grade English class. Ponder told the board that the books "Rumble Fish" and "Taming the Star Runner," both written by S.E. Hinton, "do not give our generation good morals." (Photo by Tom Gilchrist)

‘Rumble Fish’ rumble: Cass City student objects to novels

Louise Palmer, front row at left, and her daughter, Shaylee Ponder, front row at right, tell the Cass City school board of concerns they have about two books included in Cass City High School's 11th-grade English class. Ponder told the board that the books "Rumble Fish" and "Taming the Star Runner," both written by S.E. Hinton, "do not give our generation good morals." (Photo by Tom Gilchrist)
Louise Palmer, front row at left, and her daughter, Shaylee Ponder, front row at right, tell the Cass City school board of concerns they have about two books included in Cass City High School’s 11th-grade English class. Ponder told the board that the books “Rumble Fish” and “Taming the Star Runner,” both written by S.E. Hinton, “do not give our generation good morals.” (Photo by Tom Gilchrist)

Cass City Public Schools leaders asked 11th-grader Shaylee Ponder why she didn’t consult her teacher before appearing at Monday’s school board meeting to object to material in two novels — language that Ponder claims promotes violence and disobedience.
But Ponder’s mother, Louise Palmer, told the board Palmer had complained about content in a book in the past in Cass City, only to be steered to the school board.
“The reason we brought this to the board is because last year my grandson was given an assigned reading, and it was all about a little boy’s day, and how he went praying to an Allah,” Palmer said. “Certainly, we’re not going to get into a religious debate, but I think that if the story had been about a boy praying to Jesus Christ, it would have been banned from the school system. “I went to the teacher about that and I asked why that was an assigned reading. She indicated to me that she had no power or control over the curriculum, and that the board of education approved it. So naturally my assumption this time around was we needed to go to the board of education.”
During Monday’s board meeting, Ponder, 17, criticized content of two books assigned to her as part of a different class, an 11th-grade English course: the novels “Rumble Fish” and “Taming of the Star Runner” by S.E. Hinton.
“I feel that these books you provide do not give our generation good morals,” Ponder, 17, told the school board, reading from a prepared statement.
“In these books, you have profanity, sexual references and more,” Ponder told board members. “You say you want what is best for the students when in reality you don’t even look at what is in the books.
“How do you expect the students to take you seriously when you say in the (student) handbook ‘No swearing, no sexual harassment’? They are in these stories. I understand that everyone is raised in different environments but by having to read about it doesn’t make the situation better.”
According to www.scholastic.com, “Rumble Fish” tells the story of a “tough teen (who) wants to be even tougher” and “to be the strongest streetfighter and the most respected guy this side of the river.” A movie version of the book was produced by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983.
The same website describes “Taming the Star Runner” as a novel about a youth sent to his uncle’s country ranch, where he clashes with his new classmates until he befriends a girl who runs a riding school on the ranch, and learns something about himself as he helps her tame a wily horse.
Board members indicated they haven’t read either of the books, but agreed to examine them.
Jane Reif, who teaches the 11th-grade English class, said the two books pose fictional situations where “young teens” face problems and show how they deal with problems, such as when youths get in trouble with law enforcement officials or make poor choices.
“We know that happens in reality, but these stories do include what happens when they get in trouble and when they make poor choices, and then the rest of the story is how they have to deal with that — the consequences of their actions and how they realize that fighting ends up being wrong, and no one wins with fighting,” Reif said.
Reif said each of the books “challenges the protagonist, the main character, to resolve that situation, deal with the situation, in a positive manner, for the most part.”
Reif said the books have been part of Cass City’s English Department curriculum since “for sure — by computer record — 1997, but I think the books were actually introduced (at Cass City) in the 1980s.”
Reif said the two books aren’t “academically challenging,” but stressed that “Providing that realistic fiction at a high interest level does engage the students.”
Following Reif’s summary of the books, Palmer told the school board “That is not entirely true of those books, and so I would ask you to read them for yourselves.”
Other books assigned in the class include “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Many times the students will say ‘I don’t like this book,’ and I’ll say ‘It’s a classic; it won the Nobel Prize,’” Reif said. “Nobels are not granted by teenagers.”
Board Treasurer Dave Osentoski asked Ponder if she spoke with Reif first about her concerns with the books, before coming to the school board. Ponder indicated she didn’t do that. Cass City Superintendent Jeff Hartel said Ponder approached him with concerns about the novels.
Hartel said “I’ve known Shaylee since she was a little girl — she lives in my neighborhood — so I think (Ponder) felt comfortable” bringing the issue to Hartel.
“But I encouraged her to go talk to Mrs. Reif, and I don’t think that happened,” Hartel said.
“Let’s leave it at that,” Ponder said.
“Right, but we choose to go to the coach first, not the school board,” said Osentoski, explaining protocol when a player on an athletic team has a concern.
Palmer said that when she objected to content of a book her grandson was assigned to read last year, she approached the teacher “and got nowhere, and we were told that the board of education decides and approves the curriculum – going to the teacher (this time) didn’t seem to be a viable option.”
“We really don’t — in my opinion — decide the curriculum, because we don’t read every book, and we don’t have time to,” Osentoski replied. “We go with what the school district and the teaching staff advises to the board, because we’re not teachers.”
Hartel said he advised Ponder to speak with Reif about the two books. ”That’s part of growing up and maturing, and having a conversation,” Hartel said. “Mrs. Reif is a pretty good person. She probably would have said ‘OK, let’s do a different book’ and you’d have moved on, and wouldn’t even have had to read it.”
Palmer said she doesn’t believe her daughter “has any problem” with Reif, but “just the material” in the books.
“You’re a social worker, right?” Hartel then asked Palmer, who confirmed that is her occupation. “And you know that this is real-life stuff, that kids might need to understand that ‘Yeah, there’s Billy Bob out here, or whatever his name is, that are doing these inappropriate things.’”
“But I understand they get hit with it every single day,” Palmer answered, “and if I can spare my child some of it, I’m gonna try, because it is an ugly world out there.”
Reif agreed to follow a suggestion by board President Alice Zaleski, who advised Reif to inform students at the beginning of the academic year that they can be given an alternative book if they morally object to reading material.
“At this point it seems like that might be an appropriate way to handle that if the students are aware of that,” Zaleski said.
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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