Right before the start of banned books week, an Emporia man who teaches English at Waverly High School was suspended from his job for considering teaching Sherman Alexie’s novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
Austin Schopper was suspended from teaching for nine days starting Sept. 11.
This isn’t the first time Alexie’s book has come under fire. It sits at number two on a list of the American Library Association’s most-challenged books list, behind “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Ascher.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which first came into print in 2007, has come been banned “for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism and sexuality, this National Book Award winner was challenged in school curriculums because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit,” according to the ALA’s website.
Schopper was unable to go into any kind of major detail about his suspension.
“I can’t talk about a lot of the specifics about what happened,” he said. “It’s under the advice of our union rep to not push the school’s buttons anymore.”
He said he wanted to teach the book because he read it while earning his degree at Emporia State University and thought it was a great book.
“For me growing up, books that talked about things like that, they were always good for connecting, to me — reminding me that, you know, that you’re not alone, other people have gone through this, here’s somebody else’s story,” Schopper said. “But, also, that if these are issues that we want the next generation of young people to be able to address, you know, it’s got to start with having a conversation.”
He’d taught the book in the past, though not at Waverly.
“I taught it last year at Hartford,” he said.
Schopper said he came in expecting the situation to be similar — that he’d be able to teach the book.
But that wasn’t the case, he quickly learned.
“The school just kind of determined, what I’m told was in response to some parent concerns that we weren’t going to be teaching it,” he said.
He said he was fine with this.
“I followed their directive and didn’t do anything with it,” Schopper said.
He was unwilling to detail his feelings on this decision.
Schopper said none of his students have ever expressed an issue with the book or with another controversial book he’d taught, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews.
“I’ve taught that one because that one is consistently the only book that I’ve ever taught that we’ve had a 100 percent completion rate with our juniors,” he said. “We had the most students ask to re-read it or re-check it out and that book, until this year, I’d never had a problem with.”
Again, with this book, he said he’d been told parents complained about his considering teaching the book.
“I don’t want it to look like the school’s the bad guy here,” Schopper said. “Some people were upset and the school was just kind of like, ‘Well, OK, we’ll try to make everybody happy.’ I just want to make that very clear — I don’t blame the school.”
Schopper, while he was unwilling to talk about his feelings about the district’s decision to suspend him, did talk about banned books in general, specifically referencing an article written by Alexie.
“He talked about, if our goal is to educate students and to teach them the value of literature, then we need to speak to them where they’re at,” he said. “We can’t pretend like the issues that our students already go through don’t exist. I can’t imagine that there’s a class that doesn’t have a family member that struggles with addiction or mental health or ... poverty.”
This is his fourth year as a teacher.
USD 243 Superintendent Corey Reese said he was unable to discuss the matter, for confidentiality reasons.
“In order to protect his right to privacy, I am not at liberty to discuss that with you,” he said.
Reese was unable to talk about the suspension at all.
For more information on this and other banned books, see ala.org.