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  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 


    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
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  • Aaron Podolefsky: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Sep 29, 2013

    This piece appeared today (Sunday) in the Waterloo Courier.  

    Word came last month that UNI’s former Provost, Aaron Podolefsky, died of prostate cancer. He left UNI in 2005 to become President at Central Missouri, then President of Buffalo State in 2010, where he remained until his death.  He was 67.   

    He loved administrating, particularly at the college presidential level.   And he generated admiration and goodwill among faculty and students wherever he served.  

    Academic administrators herd cats, as they say, and college presidents herd cats,

    grasshoppers, squirrels, sparrows, and all other unruly campus creatures.

    Anyone who’s actually good at it deserves a few medals and long life.  

    Podolefsky made his mark on UNI from 1990 to 2005.  

    When UNI was searching for a Provost in 1998 I co-chaired the search committee.  Aaron was doing fine as Dean of the College of Social and Behaviorial Sciences, but wanted more, so he applied.  

    We were impressed, and eventually recommended him for the position.

    He was highly respected as Dean, insisting that all voices be heard, and revealing an all-purpose generosity of spirit, as well as an ability to make hard but defensible decisions. Rare traits each, and unheard of together.  

    He became an excellent UNI provost.    

    I sat on a couple of committees with him, and always counted on him to make sense of complex issues. Even when I disagreed with him, I respected and eventually appreciated his decisions. 

    In 2001, he made a decision in a controversy that put him in rare company indeed.  

    Here was the situation:  Theater UNI students had decided they wanted to produce and perform Terence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” a play that, to put it mildly, raised hackles.

     I first heard about it when friends of friends at a cocktail party were complaining, rather loudly, that UNI was going to stage a play in which Christ and his apostles were portrayed as gay.  They shook their heads knowingly, as if to say ‘typical university nonsense.”  

    Those shaking heads turned into angry protests.  The faculty director, Steve Taft, worried that the play’s very idea was too controversial, and that potential theatergoers would dismiss it as rabble-rousing blasphemy. 

    Though blasphemy is still legal in this country, hard-core believers still go apoplectic.  

    Once word got out, protests went directly to the Provost.  Outraged citizens inundated Podolefsky with calls to shut the production down.  Alumni threatened to withhold their support for the university forever unless he cancelled it.

    Some students protested as well, insisting that their freedom of religion was being curtailed because the play attacked their beliefs.    

    Provosts at other universities had caved when faced with outrage over “Corpus Christi.”  They cited security concerns or just fear that it was too offensive to most citizens, especially donor alumni.  

    What did Aaron do?  He answered the protestors, calmly and deliberately, saying.  as he later explained, “When people wrote me copious emails about values, I wrote back that I also have values — American values, and that sometimes people died protecting those values.” 

    He sat on a 2003 panel on the “Corpus Christi” controversy, asserting that his own values held that everyone be heard, even when their expressions contradicted or offended values of other groups.  He seemed to condone blasphemy, which put him on the firing line.  Actually he was supporting academic freedom. 

    So he held firm, “Corpus Christi” went on, the university survived, and we now appreciate his ability to withstand pressures that other administrators at other universities could not.

    But it wasn’t easy.     

    Jim Lubker, the interim provost who followed Aaron, mentioned Aaron’s flaw, if any:  he was too sensitive.  The Provost regularly endured stinging criticism and abuse from angry citizens over “Corpus Christi” and other less controversial decisions.  “He took it personally sometimes,” Lubker said, “And suffered from it.” 

    Few people I’ve known can avoid that flaw.  Most of us recoil at criticism, go into defense mode, then sink into self-pity.

    If Aaron Podolefsky did that, it never showed.  He carried on, cheerful, affable, putting criticism and rebuffs behind him, and making decisions for the good of most, all of the time.

    UNI will be holding a memorial service for him in the near future.  

    That’s only fitting; Aaron Podolefsky deserves not just remembering, but emulating.




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