In school settings, however, I do think teachers should be responsible. They should be sensitive to their students' needs and to the concerns of their parents. Careful planning in accordance with age appropriate material is not book-banning. Listening to parents’ concerns and allowing them to select alternate readings is not book-banning. At the same time, parents should not produce knee-jerk reactions to a book without closely considering the teacher’s rationale for including a book in a specific unit plan. A reasoned decision to have your child read a different book is easily understood and, I hope, respected and supported by teachers and administrators. Forcing other people’s children to fall in line with your decision for your child is a totally different issue. It is a bizarre and intrusive type of censorship.
Instead, both parents and teachers should try more open communication. As a classroom teacher, I found two forms of communication helpful. First, a disclosure statement that covered classroom expectations, grading policies, and a list of books that we would be studying with a brief rationale was helpful. Second, I tried to hold a back-to-school night for my classes whether or not the school had decided to continue the tradition. (Remember, schools stop having such nights, not because teachers randomly decide to quit attending. It has more to do with the parents’ attendance patterns.) I found that such methods of communication allowed parents to participate in the plans for their children’s education; they become part of the educational process. They were more likely to encourage their children to keep up with the planned curriculum, support their independent reading, and, occasionally, they read a few of the books themselves.
Nevertheless, I had a few bumps early in my career as I was learning the ropes. Early in the 1980s I was teaching One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is important to remember the context, it was before the fall of the Berlin wall and this was a book written by a Russian descendent—an author who was expelled from his country because of his brazen willingness to speak out about injustice. When he writes about a day in the life of man in a Russian Gulag prison camp, he writes from experience. He spent 8 years imprisoned in the Gulag as one of Stalin’s post-war guests. Even after his release he remained in internal exile in Siberia. Fortunately, Khrushchev found One Day in the Life a useful tool to critic Stalin’s heavy hand. Under Brezhnev, however, Solzhenitsyn begins to have trouble again he was finally expelled. It seems that Russian leaders failed to understand that writers write and they frequently write about issues that move them, what they feel is a true representation of the world. In addition, they don’t seem to be too concerned about asking permission from those who might be insulted, confused, or inconvenienced by what they might have to say. To understand Solzhenitsyn’s commitment to the power of art I recommend that you read his Nobel Prize speech which had to be smuggled out of Russia.
In the middle of the unit, the principal asked me to visit his office; gratefully, this wasn’t a frequent occurrence. He had received a phone call from a parent suggesting that I was teaching an inappropriate book. All the way to the office I kept trying to think about what the objectionable book might be. I had taught about the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. We had openly talked about examples of hypocrisy in religion—always dangerous ground. We had recently finished discussing the violent nature of apartheid in South Africa (remember Mandela was still in prison) with our unit on Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. We had discussed the death of Steven Biko, compared practices of apartheid to American Indian reservations and to school segregation. I actually thought that, One Day in the Life, a book which describes how horribly a communist government could treat its own citizen, was actually one of the “safest” books that I was using. Several arguments come to mind that a parent in this school’s relatively conservative community might make about my selections. As I came to find out, I shouldn't have worried about violence, drunkenness, murder, false imprisonment, discussing religion in school, discussions of racial injustice, civil protest, or children fathered out of wedlock.
Nope, it was the dreaded “F” word. I actually don’t think the word has a place in open classroom discussions; it might, but it is hard for me to imagine after twenty five years in the classroom. It occurred a few times in One Day in the Life, but never in the context of a sexual situation. It was always within the context of a prison guard’s language as they addressed the inmates. Solzhenitsyn expertly used the word to help characterize the guards as dehumanizing brutes as they talked about and mistreated men who were primarily political prisoners. My principal, to his credit, was not worked up nor did he talk to me in an accusatory tone, he simply asked me to explain my rationale for teaching the book. I did. I like to think that I did it calmly, but I know I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockers. I was still within the first five years of my teaching career. I still had more enthusiasm and energy than I did common sense and experience. After he took a few moments to think, he gave me what I still feel is one of the most sincere compliments I ever received from an administrator. He told me that I had almost persuaded him to read the book. I went back to class and, true to his word, the principal took care of the issue. I never knew which parent or which student raised the complaint and class continued.
Increasingly, we ask adolescents to grow up. We ask them to work, to fight our wars, to inherit our debt, and to solve our issues with race that have continued through generations. We leave the Statue of Liberty in the harbor, but our leaders do not model coherent conversations about immigration in our country without the use of racist language or belittling stereotypes.
Do we really want to take The Giver out of the hands of adolescents, because it describes a society that practices “mercy” killing of not only adults but of slightly delayed babies? Wouldn’t we rather have slow, coherent discussions that advance critically thinking? Do we want to remove Roll of Thunder, Hear me Cry from our classrooms because of physical violence, intense racism, and clearly defined economic inequity? Wouldn’t we really rather promote discussions of the educational gaps between different racial groups and between the rich and the poor?
We want both men and women to continually demonstrate their patriotism by fighting in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and, perhaps, other places in the world; but we don’t want them to read books like Fallen Angels, The Kite Runner, The Things They Carried, and Sunrise over Fallujah not because they depict acts of military violence that we increasingly know leave too many of our veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, but because it uses a questionable word. Really? Do we expect them to confront the unspeakable horrors of war and return without hearing “questionable” language?
There are many other books that present controversial issues that happen to and involve teens—rape, physical abuse, divorce, drug abuse and addiction, genocide, the ravages of war, abandonment, and gang activity, to mention just a few. Shouldn’t they be able to read about them in the hope that they can, perhaps, vicariously experience them in order to avoid them or if, heaven forbid, they are in the midst of them find their way through?
All of the books in this blog posting have been banned. Wouldn’t we, in the words of one America’s most frequently banned narrators, Holden Caulfield, be phonies if we didn’t teach books in a reasoned, deliberate manner while at the same time, fighting for individual choice?
Until next week.
Steven T. Bickmore