The following is an account of a book challenge which took place in 2004 at Arrow-
head High School in Waukesha County. It was originally intended to complement the “def-
initions” segment of our group presentation on banned and challenged books. Due to time
constraints, it appears here instead.
I live in Waukesha County in the Arrowhead High School District. The school offers and elective course in Modern Literature to juniors and seniors. One of the books on the course reading list is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was published in 1999 by MTV. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Wallflower is an epistolary novel, written from the point of view of a 9th-grade boy. It is controversial because it deals with sensitive subjects such as date rape, abortion, drug use, and pedophilia.
In 2004, a junior boy in this Modern Lit class complained to his parents about Wallflower, even though h e liked the teacher, a man by the name of Frank Balistreri. Mr. Balistreri designed the Modern Lit course at Arrowhead. He’s one of the school’s most popular teachers, and has won the Teacher of the Year Award. He’s beloved by most of the Arrowhead community. But, the parents of this particular boy in his class, Kurt and Karen Krueger, felt differently. When their son complained to them about Wallflower, they went on the warpath and launched a challenge to the book.
I contacted Frank Balistreri with the hope of interviewing him, but he declined to speak to me. Here, in part, is what he said: “You’re asking me about a particularly horrible episode in my teaching career. I’d rather not revisit it.” A colleague of his in Arrowhead’s Language Arts Department did agree to speak to me, however, on the condition that he remain anonymous. Our phone conversation lasted a half hour, and most of the information in this account came directly from him.
Kurt and Karen Krueger (whom the faculty at Arrowhead took to calling “KKK” during the controversy) are Fundamentalist Christians who had home-schooled their children until their eldest son’s junior year. Ironically, the wanted their kids to graduate from Arrowhead because of the cache a diploma from the school holds (AHS is one of Wisconsin’s top public schools, and is recognized nationally for its academic and athletic excellence.)
When the Kruegers, who were described to me as being “rabid”, challenged Wall-
flower, they didn’t go for subtlety or nuance in their approach. To quote the teacher I spoke to, “They pressed the nuclear button.” They wrote an angry letter to the school’s superintendent, claiming that their son had been “traumatized” by reading the book and accusing Frank Balistreri of being a “pornographer.” They also hired a lawyer and went straight to the press, giving interviews to the Lake Country Reporter, the Waukesha Freeman, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; and appearing on all the Milwaukee TV news channels.
It wasn’t long before the “nu ts” started coming out of the woodwork. About a dozen other Arrowhead parents joined the Kruegers in their challenge to Wallflower, and Frank
Balistreri (the “wonderful” man and admired teacher) found himself almost overnight to be the target of vicious attacks from people and organizations not only in Wisconsin, but from all over the country. More than 64 anonymous phone messages were left on his voice mail at school, many using foul and threatening language. A Christian radio station in South Carolina contacted him as he was about to teach a class, trying to get a live interview with him. When he declined, saying that he believed he was being set up, he was vilified on the air for being a coward and a sinner. Mr. Balistreri and his family also got angry, obscene, and threatening phone calls at home (again, most of them anonymous.)
This story does have heroes as well as villains, though. Most faculty members, staff, students, and parents supported Balistreri. A school librarian, Bonnie Logerman, enlisted the help of the ALA, which offered its support in combating the book challenge. Mrs. Logerman became one of the fiercest advocates not just on Mr. Balistreri’s behalf, but also on behalf of Wallflower and other books that came under attack in the wake of the original challenge (These included Krik? Krak! by the Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.) I was told that Logerman nearly lost her job in the process, because she also became under attack from the would-be book banners. Finally, three doctors with children at Arrowhead spearheaded the effort to mobilize the local community on behalf of Frank Balistreri (and Logerman). Their efforts were also
highly praised by the teacher I spoke to.
Even though Arrowhead had never experienced a challenge of this kind before, the school did have a procedure in place for dealing with it. A committee was formed, with two representatives each from the school board, the faculty, and the student body. The librari an from the South Campus (holding freshmen and sophomores) also served on it. More than one lengthy and highly charged public hearing was held at AHS, which was heavily attended by the media and moderated by the committee. Ultimately, the latter determined that Wallflower was not offensive, and it remains on the Modern Lit course reading list.
In the aftermath of the challenge, four things happened that are worth noting. First, Arrowhead altered its Curriculum Guide for the Modern Literature course, which now includes a warning to parents about the potentially controversial subject matter and language contained in some of the readings. Parents are urged to visit the Web page of the Language Arts Department, where 34 detailed and comprehensive textbook rationales are offered. If a parent ultimately decides not to allow their child to read a certain book, alternate choices are made available. The Curriculum Guide also states the requirement that parents sign a letter permitting their child to take the class; these letters must be submitted before
any books are distributed to students.
The teacher I spoke to told me that these new requirements are a burden on the faculty and staff at the school, because they demand--in his words--”a great deal of time, labor, energy, blood, sweat, and tears.” They detract from his and other teachers’ ability to focus on what they do best--teaching. In the two years since the challenge forced these changes, only one out of a total of 203 students taking the Modern Lit c ˆlass has refused to read an assigned book.
The fallout from the book challenge also resulted in a contentious school board election, where the Kruegers and their supporters failed in their bid to win a majority of seats. Kurt Krueger, who had once served as the District Attorney for Walworth County, ran unsuccessfully for the same office in Waukesha County this fall, losing in the republican primary.
Finally, Frank Balistreri, the teacher who became the lightning rod in the book challenge controversy, no longer wants to teach the Modern Literature course, which was a labor of love for him at one time, because he was its creator.
As for myself, I think the main lesson I’ve learned from this assignment is that book challenges take a very real toll on the people involved in them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the conversation I had with Mr. X, the teacher at Arrowhead who, even though he was a peripheral figure in the challenge, still seems emotionally raw from the experience.