Kids’ Right to Read Project Helps Lift Ban on Bless Me, Ultima

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It doesn’t happen often, but a school superintendent has apologized for banning a book. Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulm banned Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (Grand Central Publishing) from the 10th grade English curriculum in Driggs, Idaho, after receiving complaints about profanity and other “inappropriate” material in the novel.   

Woolstenhulme’s action was greeted by dismay in the local community and a letter of protest from the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP). KRRP, which was founded by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the National Coalition Against Censorship, declared that there was no justification for removing the book. Bless Me, Ultima “is frequently taught in high school classrooms as a way to expand students’ worldview and introduce them to an American experience that is perhaps new to some students and immensely relatable to others,” the letter said.

KRRP urged the Board to retain use of the text, which has appeared on the Advanced Placement exam four times in the last 10 years. “The language and situations in this work, as in any text under study, must be seen in the context of the entire work,” the KRRP letter said, adding that “an author’s broad moral vision, total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignored when protesters focus only on aspects that are offensive to them.”

While some in the Idaho community backed Woolstenhulme’s ban, others formed a group called Teton Valley Parents Lobbying for Educational Advancement (PLEA), which called for a “fair and balanced decision” regarding Bless Me, Ultima. PLEA founding member Sue Muncaster, a volleyball coach and a mother of two, told Teton Valley News that she feared limitations were being put on teachers. “No one is going to want to teach here, or … we’re going to end up with a monoculture in [the] classroom,” she said.

This past Monday, December 9, at a Teton School District board meeting, which was framed as a discussion about board policies and ways parents can move forward with their grievances against the education process, Woolstenhulme apologized for his actions and called for an immediate reinstatement of the novel to the school’s curriculum. He conceded that his suspension of Bless Me, Ultima in a closed meeting with the English department prior to the November school board meeting was an action taken outside of school policy, as reported by Teton Valley News.

“My response was to students and parents that had strong concerns over this book, and yet I recognize a bigger majority of students and parents did not have any objection to this book,” Woolstenhulme said.

The removal of Bless Me Ultima is one of many recent challenges that the KRRP has been working to overturn, said Acacia O’Connor, the program’s coordinator. In November alone, there were 12 cases.

In addition to getting the books back into the hands of students, a goal of KRRP is “to generally remind [educators] of their responsibilities in terms of academic freedom,” said O’Connor. “Even in cases where we don’t succeed, I think it has the positive effect of reminding people that they can’t act in a vacuum. There are wider implications of removing a book from a school.”