Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Letter to the Editor. Because When I Get Really Miffed I Write.

So I didn't have time for this, but I just got a bee in my bonnet. No doubt it will end up in a black hole with very low priority in the bowels of Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, but I just had to do it.

To Whom It May Concern:
My school district has adopted your excellent collections curriculum for use in our high school. The selections are engaging; the materials are beautiful from a design standpoint; and as a teacher with a strong background in educational technology, I find your interactive aspects very exciting. 

I have spent the last several days reviewing these materials in preparation to begin the school year. In my reading I came across the essay, "The Clan of the One-Breasted Women" by Terry Tempest Williams. It is found on Page 187 of the Grade 12 collections book. 

The essay is mostly about seeking social justice for wrongs committed by government agencies (in this case, nuclear testing in northern Nevada), but it is also ostensibly about Williams' Mormon upbringing. 

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The nickname of our church has traditionally been "Mormons" for our belief in a book of scripture titled The Book of Mormon. Because the name was once meant to be degrading, however, it is preferential for LDS people to be referred to as LDS or by the church's full name. "Mormon" is also used, but it is a slang name for our church. Williams uses the term in her essay purposely to demonstrate herself as an insider or a disaffected member, but in all three of your footnotes and your introduction the proper name of the church is not once included. While certainly unintended, your use only of the informal name is disrespectful and incorrect. It certainly is wordier to get it correct, but your fact checkers really messed up on this one. The style guide on all press releases from the LDS church and on our website, www.lds.org, respectfully request those writing in the media to make this distinction. 

A second, and even more glaring factual error regarding LDS practice is found at the bottom of page 188. The book says that the author's use of "the Service" is in reference to LDS missionary service. This cannot be correct. The referenced paragraph tells about the author as a young girl on her mother's lap, and her mother as being pregnant and they "had just gotten out of the Service." In that time period, while both LDS men and women did serve missions, they did so before marriage while they were single, and certainly before children. In addition, I have never, in my nearly 40 years as a member of the faith, ever heard anyone call their mission "the Service" with a capital "S." That term is reserved wholly for reference to the military, a place where many LDS people also serve with distinction. The paragraph clearly refers to her young, married parents, just finishing a stint with the military. And while Williams' mother and/or father may have certainly served an LDS mission, this is not the author's meaning in the suggested paragraph. 

The other two footnotes that discuss Latter-day Saint beliefs are accurate and succinct. Even the reference to "Mormon" here would not be too glaring if the proper name of the church was given in story heading.

My comments here are not prompted by the author's obvious rejection of her LDS upbringing and her both subtle and not so subtle criticisms of things we take to be sacred and profound. It is, however, one of the only essays I've so far encountered in your excellent materials that seem to relish in a critique of a certain belief system or culture (as many writers on the subject will tell you that if being a Latter-day Saint is a religion, being a "Mormon" is a cultural identity like Judaism). I find many of Williams' arguments rather absurd when my perception is that more rural American members share a strong Libertarian bent that is anti-establishment concerning government. In addition, her family proclivity to breast cancer is certainly as much to blame on genetics (the havoc that the BRCA genes wreak on families is especially well-documented) as on environmental pollution, and certainly much more to blame than her childhood belief system. These last comments could, of course, be a partial basis for engaging in a discussion about the piece in pushing back against the text, and it is healthy for students to examine their beliefs about all kinds of things. I am just not certain that you have chosen the best example for a chapter on Voices of Protest.

If you want to really use the Mormon story to make a point, you should publish a copy of the extermination order signed into law by the Missouri governor in the 1830's. the LDS people were designated as enemies of the state . . . either to be driven out or killed. Before they were driven out of their main city at Far West, their men were disarmed and made to stand in the outskirts while a militia plundered the city and raped some of the women left behind. They were then driven to Illinois in the winter with only what they could carry. It was less than a generation ago that the Missouri governor made a formal apology for his state's role in this egregious violation of American rights.
I sincerely hope this letter made it to the desk of somebody in a position to improve later editions of collections, which I sincerely hope will be in print for many years to come. 

Science Teacher Mommy

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