Jason Walker needs no introduction, but this essay is different from the usual articles that appear on this site. White Tower Musings is designed to introduce readers to novels, plays, poems, graphic novels, films, and Non-fiction works that they may not know about so that I can, in my own way, explain to the reader why they should give a shit. I typically avoid outright politics because that’s what Facebook, Memes, and Thanksgiving dinner is for, and after experiencing it in all these venues I believe you can agree the whole damn things get’s tiring. There are stories and testimonies however that, while they may be political, surpass the pathos and weak rhetoric that we so often are forced to listen to or read. When Jason told me he was writing an essay about censorship of books in schools, and his own experience with it, I assumed he was going to go into a book like Lord of the Flies or The Bell Jar and the conflict within.
Instead he has produced a fascinating and deeply soulful portrayal of the current crisis facing public Education in America in a microcosm of his own experience as a teacher. Censorship must be fought. Rather than wax philosophic about the inherent nobility of free speech and shriek “Liberty or Death!” from the top of my lungs, it seems more proficient, and far more successful to offer up Mr. Walker’s essay and allow the reader to see for themselves how censorship really works, and the toll that it leaves upon society.
The Problem With Censorship is [DELETED FOR THE READER’S VIRTUE]
“Life is not always pretty, and it’s very seldom fair. Turn on the news—murder, rape, drugs, terrorism, theft, violence—they’re some of the notes that make up the dance of life. And I’ve always thought that giving kids a safe place to explore these horrific concepts—in the pages of a book, with teachers and librarians and parents to help lend perspective—is one of the best ways to arm our young people with the information they need, not only to survive, but to thrive; not only to cope with the horrors, but to become the force that helps stop them.” ~Gary Paulsen
It has taken over a month for me to be able to write this in a spirit other than anger and hurt. I’ve taken my time to digest the events which occurred just days before the school year ended; to try, in fairness, to see them from a parent’s perspective, and to let go of the bitterness I felt about the way the situation was handled. What, you may ask, was so terrible that it took a month for me to make sense of it? Ironically, an event which, until it happened to me, I was marginally ambivalent about–a parent’s protestation of the book I selected for my students’ summer reading assignment, and my principal’s hasty acquiescence to the challenge. I’ll explain all of the details, but first, a bit of history and context.
Being a reader, a writer, a student, and an educator, I’ve been aware of book for quite some time now. As a high school senior, I read JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a book which has been challenged and banned multiple times for over a half century, for my senior research project. One of the reasons I chose the book was because I knew of the controversy surrounding it–because I was a teenager, and one of the things teenagers do is challenge the paradigms in which they live. As a student of history, I know well the stories of the Nazis burning books which they considered subversive. Sadly, there have been factions here in the United States who have done the same thing over the years, even recently. As an educator, I’ve seen lists of books which are considered off limits to students in schools because their content is too salacious or vulgar or anti-something-that-we-shouldn’t-be-anti or pro-something-that-we-shouldn’t-be-pro. As a writer, I’ve even censored myself for fear that my own audience will be turned off by something I write. But, even with all of that knowledge, and even with all of that experience, challenging and banning books never seemed like that big a deal to me. It didn’t really impact me. I’m a grown man and I can read whatever I want. And, parents only have their children’s best interests at heart. And, I’m a good teacher. I would never ask my students to read something inappropriate. And, besides, this isn’t 1935, and we aren’t ruled by a despotic mad man. Right?
Now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story…
At a meeting of the district’s English department heads in mid-January, the Director of Curriculum & Instruction for English Language Arts told us that we should begin thinking about and ordering our books for any summer reading we planned to require. I already had in mind the book that I wanted my students to read, so I told her. Unfortunately, I found out a few days later that the book I selected was no longer in print and that I should select something else. So, I went with my backup choice, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. The C&I Director gave it her blessing, my principal placed the purchase order, the books were ordered, and within a couple of weeks they were sitting in boxes in my supply closet waiting to be distributed. Done and done.
Now, it’s important for me to admit that I had never read the book. However, I had seen bits and pieces of the movie, and I read several different synopses online. I knew the basics of the story and I knew the subject matter that the book covered. I felt more than comfortable offering it for incoming 9th graders to read. There was nothing in the book that I believed would be so outlandishly foreign or offensive as to warrant the ire of parents. The joke was most certainly on me.
The book and its accompanying assignment were distributed to students. Then, with only one week remaining in the school year, my principal forwarded an email to me from the parent of one of the students. The gist of the email was, basically, “what the hell do you people think you’re doing? Do you know what this book is about? The boy talks about masturbation, and sex, and suicide. How dare you expose my child to this trash. He won’t be reading it.” After I managed to roll my eyes back to the forward-facing position in my head, my immediate desire was to fire back an email letting the parent know that if he thought his child didn’t know about masturbation, or sex, or suicide, then he needed to sit and have a serious talk with the boy. Ultimately, I decided it was in my best interest not to respond that way. I emailed my principal back and told her that I was working to write a response and that I would forward it to her before I replied. More jokes…still on me.
Before I could calm myself and compose an appropriate response to the concerned parent, my principal had replied and informed the parent that I was the one who selected the book, that she wasn’t at all familiar with it, that she assumed I had vetted (my word, not hers) the book, and…best of all, that all of the books were being recalled from the students and that another book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which my students read last summer and hated almost to a single individual, would be used for summer reading. I didn’t know anything about her decision until the email was sent, and I was given no opportunity to express my opinions or concerns. That, as they say, was that.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also tell you that I had submitted my resignation effective at the end of the school year a couple of weeks before this incident, so I would not have been their teacher in the fall. Because I’m a gracious person, I am giving some benefit of the doubt to my now former principal, and assuming that she didn’t want my successor to have to deal with any blowback. But, I’m also not a fool. I know that it wouldn’t have mattered even if I were staying. The book would have been recalled, and my thoughts on the matter would not have borne any weight. The outcome would have been the same. But, I won’t be back there in the fall, so why should it matter?
Censorship always matters. Regardless who commits it, and regardless whom it’s directed toward, censorship is a bad thing. It damages the very fabric that makes our country great. But, I won’t even try and explain this on those terms. I won’t go big and talk about freedom of speech, or thought, or any of the other big American ideals that are so vitally important. Instead, I’m going to try and explain why the sort of censorship that I experienced is bad for students who miss out on important literature that deals with important issues which are relevant to them, and why parents should not be able to dictate curriculum used in a classroom.
When I was in school, the biggest problem I remember hearing about among my peers were parents divorcing (which rarely happened in my little rural community), family members getting sick or passing away, or the primary bread-winner of the family losing his or her job. There were a couple of girls who got pregnant while we were still in high school, and once or twice kids got in trouble for underage drinking, fighting in public, or something of that nature. Those problems were bad enough for teenagers and young adults to deal with, but they seem somewhat inconsequential compared to the issues which many students face today. Poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, physical, emotional, and sexual violence, crime, depression, anxiety, identity issues–these are only a few of the problems common among students today. For many of them, school is the only safe place they have; it provides the only meals they eat; it is the only outlet for them to express and relieve the thoughts and emotions which must remain pent up at home for fear of retribution if they come to light. For many of today’s students, school is their only home, and their teachers and peers are their only family. But, for too many of them, the fear of being punished, made fun of, ostracized, or marginalized for their differences remains a huge hurdle to overcome. They remain silent and suffer alone because they believe they are alone.
Imagine you are a fifteen-year-old high school freshman. Your parents are divorced and you live with your mother, grandmother, and siblings. You live in your grandmother’s house. It is old and badly in need of repair. There aren’t enough bedrooms for everyone, so you, the oldest boy, sleep on the sofa. Your father is not around, and your mother works the night shift, so the only time you see her is for a couple of hours after school each day, and on the one day a week she does not work. She makes just enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, so there is not a lot to go around, and there are certainly no extras. You don’t have internet access at home, so there is no need to have a laptop, or an iPad, or a desktop computer which your mom can’t afford anyway. You don’t have cable TV, or a DVD player. Sometimes, when it gets close to pay day, you might not have electricity for a day or two. Sounds like a pretty tough life, huh? It is. And, those are all situations which some of my students this past year dealt with at home. But, now, imagine that on top of all of that, you have a secret. It’s a secret so bad that you know telling it would mean big trouble. Imagine that on top of all of the other stresses in your life, you’re gay.
It’s not something that’s new to you–you’ve known it for a while, but you could never tell anyone. You hear kids at school say that something or someone is “gay” instead of foolish, or stupid, or wrong in some way. You hear boys call each other “faggot” when they get angry and argue with one another. You are bombarded day after day with that negative imagery. Sharing with a family member, friend, teacher, or even a counselor is just not an option because the risks are too great. After all, you must be the only person in your entire school who is gay. No one could possibly understand…until the day that someone does. Your teacher announces that the class will be studying the book Sprout! by Dale Peck. You’ve not heard of the book, but soon discover that it is a book about an openly-gay teenaged boy who moves with his father to a new state and a new school after his mother dies of cancer. Suddenly, instead of Greek gods, or military generals, or knights and fair maidens, there’s someone in a book who is like you. And, when the class discusses the book together, you discover that there are other students in your school who might understand how you feel, and not ostracize you for being different. The book provides a safe way for you to talk about your own feelings without taking the risk of revealing too much information about yourself until you are ready.
This is only one of a dozen or more scenarios that I could present based on the students I had in class. The beauty of literature in general, and especially modern Young Adult literature is that it addresses issues which are common to each of us. It allows us to recognize ourselves in other people. It allows us to sympathize and empathize with other people in ways that we might not otherwise think about doing. Literature has been a vessel by which we transmit the story of “us” for as long as “we” have been telling our stories. Literature reveals the connections we have with the world around us that we might not have even know were there. That is why it is of paramount importance that all students have the opportunity to read books which might challenge them in some way. Those challenges help students mature and learn about the world which they live in–even a world which might not be the one they, or their parents hope for. They teach students the critical thinking skills which are the foundation for a sound education. That is why we cannot and must not allow influences from outside the classroom to undermine what goes on inside the classroom. For some students, that challenging literature provide characters who finally look, and act, and speak, and feel the way they do. That is why the parents of one, or even several students should not dictate the literature to which the entire student body has access.
Don’t misunderstand my point of view. I am all for a parent’s right to opt their student out of a particular lesson, or (to a lesser extent) course which they feel conflicts with their religious, moral, or ethical belief system. However, there is no logical reason for that same parent to run rough-shod over a school district and be allowed to opt the entire student body out of that lesson. In that instance, parents are denying access to material, knowledge, and opportunities for learning to every student, regardless of the opinions and desires of those students and their parents. That runs counter to our national ethos. It runs counter to everything Americans are so proud of. And, frankly, it is fundamentally unfair.
In 2016, it would be unconscionable for a school district to give in to a parent or group of parents who demanded the removal of To Kill a Mockingbird because it did not reflect their personal values. Why then are school districts so willing to give in to the demands of those same parents when they concern books which cover topics like sexuality, gender identity, poverty, religion, or any of the myriad issues which our real students in our real classrooms face in their real lives each and every day? Why should the religious principles or moral sensibilities of an infinitesimally small number of people dictate the curriculum that I choose for my entire class? Simply put, they should not. There is too much at stake where our students are concerned to allow a thinly-veiled attempt at continued marginalization of certain individuals in the name of protection to derail sound and relevant educational opportunities for all of our students.
I have purposely not filled this piece with statistics and lists and bullet points about the dangers of censorship in education. That was not my goal in writing it. Instead, I hope that I have provided perspective from an educator who experienced censorship firsthand. I hope that I have sparked some level of, if not outrage, then indigence at the injustice that I experienced, and that countless more educators around our country experience each year when attempting to do our best by our students–ALL of our students. I encourage you to stand with us as we continue to fight this battle to provide the entire spectrum of literature and learning to our students, so that they are aware of, engaged in, and prepared for the world that awaits them outside the classroom and their homes.
For more information about the dangers of challenging and banning literature, I encourage you to read the recent article by E. Sybil Durand and James Blasingame, with Gary Paulsen entitled, “Do No Harm”, which appears in The ALAN Review Columns, Summer 2016 edition (see URL below).
Blasingame, James, E. Sybil Durand, and Gary Paulsen. “Do No Harm.” The ALAN Review Columns 43.3 (2016): 90-95. PDF. http://www.alan-ya.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/L90-95-ALAN-Sum162.pdf
About the Author:
Jason Walker is a graduate student finishing his Master of Arts in English Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Texas at Tyler. He also teaches 9th Grade Pre-AP Literature and Creative Writing. A life-long resident of East Texas, Jason recently decided to leave his teaching position in order to pursue his true passion–writing. He works as a freelance writer and blogger, publishing pieces for various outlets and covering many topics. Jason is also a classically trained singer and pianist, history buff, and foodie. You can read more of his work on his blog called MEtopia: A Guy Who Writes About Things and Stuff. This is his second published article for White Tower Musings.
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