07 February 2013
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.—Franz Kafka
A former student sent me a link to a Washington Post story about a challenge to Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. He remembered reading The Bluest Eye by Morrison. He was glad to have read that novel, and while he concedes "it is a disturbing book—but that hardly means we shouldn't read it."
A Virginia mother of four disagrees. Her son should not be reading disturbing books. The Holicaust would be okay with her, it seems, but not a book about the brutality of slavery.
Her senior son was in an AP class (a proscribed curriculum that generally provides the list of what books to read) and he had the option of reading something else. He chose to read Beloved by Toni Morrison but decided it was "gross" so he "gave up". (Trust me, this is code for "I didn't want to read it because it was hard.") The boy is now in college, so the mother's determination to have the book removed from the reading list at her son's former school isn't about protecting her son or younger children—they would also have the option of reading something else in the AP class—but about telling other students what they may choose to read.
Yes, indeed, I have a problem with that.
I don't teach Beloved. It is a hard read, suitable for seniors, but challenging and beautiful, painful and stunning. It is easier to give up on this difficult book than to fully enter the world of slavery and change, brutality and open-hearted kindness that it reveals. It's a book that could change the way you think about the world. That's the work of great novels, to change your life, and one reason it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The worst two conferences (confrontations with two parents in each case) I have ever experienced involved The Bluest Eye and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.
The first conferences was particularly awful because I had done very well by their older child and was doing far better with the second that they had any right to expect—he had serious issues and had not done well in English in previous years. The issue I had with him was that he almost never followed directions and the essay he wrote for his final exam failed to address the assignment except in a couple of sentences. The parents were unhappy that I failed him on the assignment— and besides, the novel was "disgusting" and "anti-male" a "Man-hating book", etc. etc. I explained I wanted him to rewrite it, which was what I'd written on the essay, though they had not noticed that and the father was too angry to hear any explanation from me. He called me "spiteful" and "vindictive" and then later, after his wife calmed him down, told me he "had not intended to offend" me personally. Really. My hat is off to anyone who can be labeled "vindictive" without taking offense. This was his idea of an apology. I didn't respond to him, but I did help their son get into college, as I had the first.
The parents upset about Black Swan Green came to my room after school and stood in my room for a long time, beating me into submission with their moral superiority. It did not help that one was a teacher who had also bullied, patronized, and imposed his personal religious views on my own son not so many years before this. When my son had been in his class, I advised him to stay out of the guy's way, the year would soon be over. But then he and his wife came to see me and had me for over an hour in my classroom, telling me what I'd done wrong and detailing how I should do my job "properly" in future.
Black Swan Green is a wonderful novel, and their objections were about a page and a quarter in which the thirteen year old main character is trapped up a tree hiding from a soldier about to go to war who has sex with his girlfriend. It has no specific details, no language (I think there is a "nipple" showing), the boy is embarrassed, good-hearted, and unwilling to watch. I was astounded at the objection, but that spring is the only year I have failed to teach The Bluest Eye.
Another difficult challenge I experienced concerned an excellent prize-winning distopian novella, "Stories for Men," about a reversal of sexism and the damage that comes from trusting what others believe of us over what we know about ourselves. A mother complained to the principal about the book her daughter was reading. She was a freshman in a class freshmen were not supposed to be in and like the son of the Virginia, she had a choice about what to read and chose this novella. There is language. There are, in fact, a number of issues, but this book isn't about swearing or drugs or violence. It's about trusting and being true to yourself. And the mother didn't want her daughter removed from the class, only to complain without revealing to me who she was. (She later gave her name to the county newspaper, but by then I had students pointing out that the book was no more explicit or cruel that any number of other books they had been assigned in the classes of other teachers.)
Most often, I talk to parents and to students about issues in assigned books. I let them know what might be offensive. I advise them to skip pages or talk to me. I respect parents' need to protect their children and ensure they are not exposed to material they find offensive, and I can supply an alternative if the student or family is too offended or disturbed by language or subject matter to read the novel. We do this privately, and in my small community, most people are respectful of such personal choices. I have never witnessed a student teased or called out in any way for such a choice.
Challenges to reading materials in schools have been dropping steadily for years according the the American Library Association, which keeps track of such things. Books are powerful, but they can also be set down, and the reader is free to walk away. When taught in a classroom, students have support and guidance, and because one child of one parent—or even six parents or twenty students, though I have never had that reaction—reacts negatively toward a book, does not mean the book should be dismissed. Because I am offended by material, does not mean that others should be denied the right to read a great, a truly great novel that might just change their lives.
Books must be an ax to free our souls from the ice.