In Rob Camm's academic English class for juniors, students were slated to read Sherwood Anderson's 1919 book "Winesburg, Ohio" but Camm was so impressed by "The Tortilla Curtain" that he swapped the two.
He was not sorry — the book was a hit with his students.
"It's engaging and the kids read it," the Santa Rosa High teacher said.
T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" has made news in recent weeks as the Santa Rosa School Board considered a complaint by a parent that the book is too sexually graphic and racially offensive to be taught in the classroom.
The seven-member school board disagreed and kept the book on the district's long list of classroom reading from which teachers can select titles. "The Tortilla Curtain," published in 1995, also is on the state Department of Education's approved reading list.
"For me, it was more interesting than most of the books because I could put myself in their place," said Aracely Cebreros, a junior at Santa Rosa High. "Racism against Latinos is a big thing here and if more people could understand, there is more of a chance that people could relate to it."
Cebreros said she was more unnerved by the bestselling "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini than "The Tortilla Curtain."
Boyle's book tells the intersecting stories of Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher and America and Candido Rincon. The Rincons cross the border illegally and struggle to establish their American dream before their child is born, while the Mossbachers bicker about building a neighborhood wall as a way to preserve what is theirs.
The Rincons dig in trash cans and eat sardines from the tin for sustenance while the Mossbachers debate the wall while eating tofu and oyster mushrooms.
"There are not 50 pages of pornography in this book but there are several sections that are bracing," Camm said, adding that parent concerns about the text "are not unreasonable.
"That is why you have the option for parents to say no," he said of district policy that allows students to read alternate texts without penalty.
But that policy is not fair to all students, said parent Brian Flinn, who has a son at Montgomery High.
"What about that shy kid who doesn't want to say anything?," he said. "I'm defending someone I don't even know, a child who may not be as outgoing as my son is. I don't think that is fair, with peer pressure."
Jazmine Whitlock, who graduated from Montgomery and is now studying French at Santa Rosa Junior College, urged the school board last month to pull the book from classroom discussions.
She credited her high school teachers with being able to lead discussions on sensitive topics, but said "The Tortilla Curtain" is too much for younger readers.
And opting out creates a whole new set of issues, she said.
"I was in high school last year and it is a huge deal to not go with the crowd and be the black sheep and kids are really, really mean," she said. "You would have to feel so strong about the book."
Camm expressed concern that to pull "The Tortilla Curtain" from reading lists for its graphic scenes would open the door to a host of others — many of which are considered classics.