published in the Newspaper Tree, Posted on August 17, 2007
Writer J.L. Powers has penned a book set in El Paso that deals with strong and timely issues: immigration, terrorism, racial tensions, and social divisions. But one local high school does not believe the manner in which she approaches those issues is appropriate for its students.
While tensions continue to rise on both sides of the hotly-debated issue of immigration reform in the United States, and with emotions still sensitive over the possibility of acts of terrorism within our borders, one writer has chosen to address those issues in a new work of fiction. And though that work, the novel The Confessional, is set in El Paso, there are some in the city who do not feel some of its material is appropriate for all readers.
J.L. Powers, author of the book which was published by Alfred A. Knopf Books, recently was scheduled to hold a discussion about issues addressed within the book; it was to be held at Cathedral High School, one of the oldest private schools in El Paso.
That event, scheduled for Monday Aug. 13, was cancelled by Cathedral Principal Sam Govea because of concerns had by parents that some of the content of the book was not in line with the values of the high school.
“After a lot of deep thought and prayer,” Govea said, “I just realized there was a conflicting culture between the book and Cathedral High School in the sense of a lot of the wording that was used in the book.”
Govea acknowledged that though the book was published as a work for the young adult genre, he felt “compelled to protect our kids and our school” due to the language used in the story and also inclusion of sexual content. “I think in reading the book there were a lot of sexual innuendos, and you know we’re talking about kids who are starting out at 13-years old here at Cathedral.”
Though Govea believes his older students in the school’s senior class are mature enough to comprehend the content of the book, he said as far as what that content promotes, he believes it would have been inappropriate to allow the event to take place. “This is a Catholic high school; I’m going to protect our faith and what the Catholic Church stands for, and that, as far as the way some of the things are mentioned in that book, the Church doesn’t promote it,” he said. He also said that not one student had come to him to discuss the book.
Govea said he believes that parents are a big component of the educational structure at Cathedral in regards to what they feel may be appropriate or inappropriate material for their sons. “If they want their son to read something like that, then they can go ahead and OK that,” he said, “but as far as here at the school, we’re just not going to go there.”
Censorship vs. School’s Right
In a written statement, Powers said she was looking forward to speaking at Cathedral about the issues that the book raises, such as “immigration (illegal and legal); underlying racial tension in a border society like El Paso’s; violence and pacifism; social divisions between different groups of people; and faith or doubts about faith.” She added that the event was aimed at being an overall discussion of those issues, and not a discussion about the book itself.
Powers said that she was disappointed by the decision to cancel the event due to “some people’s dislike of the language in the book,” but she defended the use of that language, saying that she used “the language that many teenagers frequently use, and that I try to use it realistically.” She added that it was an artistic choice and she recognized that that choice would offend some people.
In addition to setting the novel in El Paso, Powers has other Sun City connections. She taught a dual credit course for El Paso Community College in which Cathedral students were enrolled to gain both high school and college credits. She also worked for local publishing house Cinco Puntos Press.
Bobby Byrd, co-publisher and vice president of Cinco Puntos Press, said the decision for a private school to cancel a book event is a “whole different situation” from public censorship. “The parents are essentially hiring the school to make certain decisions,” he said. “If a teacher were teaching that book, then it would be a whole different decision.”
The decision to cancel the discussion may not have been the correct one, though, Byrd suggested. “To me it speaks of timidity,” he added. “Literature is literature.”
Powers indicated that she believed one reason for the cancellation of the event may have been due to the fact that U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was in El Paso and scheduled to deliver a keynote address the Fourth Annual Border Security Conference at UTEP on the day after the then-scheduled Cathedral event.
“As you know, The Confessional looks at the issues he (Chertoff) will be speaking about from the teen perspective,” Powers said of the possibility that Chertoff’s visit may have played a role in the decision to cancel the event.
The cancellation of the discussion was an isolated incident, Govea said. He added that the fact that the school in the book, “Jesuit High School,” is an all-boys school that just happens to be in El Paso, Texas, is coincidental. “That’s not Cathedral High School,” he stated.
Powers noted that she did believe that cancellation of the event was a decision that was made believing that this was in the best interests not just of the school, but also of the students. “I respect the motives that caused Sam Govea and others to make this decision,” Powers stated. “However, I fundamentally disagree that silencing the discussion about these issues, or to demand that the discussion can only proceed if it is couched in pretty language or the language of the Church, is a good way to bring healing to the problems in our society.”
Byrd stated that he felt the students missed an opportunity to find out what the book was about.
Speaking of the nature of high school, especially of schools similar to the fictional Jesuit High and the actual Cathedral High School, Byrd said, ”There’s this whole supposed camaraderie.” He added that that camaraderie is sometimes coupled with violence, as it was in the novel, and since violence was an issue set to be discussed by Powers, then the event should have been allowed to go forward. ”We’re bombarded by violence,” he stated. “We can’t protect kids (from it). They don’t protect themselves from it.”
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Rene Leon can be contacted at email@example.com, or at 915.351.0605.