If you are in the young adult writing community, you know that the Wall Street Journal published an article on Saturday about young adult literature. The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, writes her opinion of young adult literature. There were elements of her argument that I agree with and elements that made me shake my head. But mostly it made me remember a time in my life when I was the gatekeeper and was the dreaded object of the C-word: censorship. And so, between the flurry of tweets using the hashtag #YASaves and the article, I suddenly was caught up in the emotional maelstrom of a time I thought could no longer hurt quite as much as it still does.
For ten years I was a teacher. I may have included the modifiers of “high school” or “English” but the foundation always rested firmly on being a teacher. And while I haven’t been a “paid” teacher of that sort since 2004, I will always be a teacher in my heart and will always be involved in the teaching of others whether they are my children or the children and teens I work with in my current job. And while I was a good teacher for most of my students, I was a great teacher for some as well as a terrible teacher for others. My teaching ability didn’t change depending upon the class period or age of students. Instead the variables at work were relational — how well did my students and I connect and how well did my student connect with the subject material. The one variable that remained constant was my care and commitment to my students. I note this “non-fact” because some parents and students thought I was doing the absolute best by their student. And yet there were the folks who really, truly believed I was trying to harm students.
Why? How? Simply by asking students to read books that challenged them.
Let me put the above in the necessary context. In addition to English 9, Speech, and Comp I and III, I taught International Baccalaureate HL 11th grade English. If you are unfamiliar with IB, it is the most rigorous curriculum offered to students in the world. Period. It is also something I believe very strongly in. Becoming an IB teacher made me a better reader, writer, learner and teacher. It also meant I followed guidelines created by the IBO. Students apply to take IB courses and they know what the course materials are beforehand. (In the English curriculum, the book list for the entire program is publicly available and is provided to students and parents starting with the eighth grade information night.)
As one of the junior teachers, I was responsible for the “World Literature” section of the two year curriculum. What fun that was! We read books in translation and the caliber of discussions was on par or superior to most undergraduate courses I experienced. These were teens hungry to talk about literature and the perspectives given by writers from different worlds than white, middle-class Minnesota. One of the novels we studied was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The first year I taught it, the discussions were lively, the essays were thoughtful, and the growth of the students while studying the contrasts between life in Minnesota and Columbia was impressive. And then the next group of students arrived, including one student who’s parent objected to the subject matter of the novel. To be fair, it was the sexual references that the parent most objected to but her argument ultimately came down to this: why would I force children to read books that are so sad? The mother accused me of filling her daughter’s head with filthy images she would never be able to forget and with trying to send the girl into a fit of depression. Over the phone the mother chastised me and told me I had no business poisoning other people’s children and that I wasn’t fit to teach let alone call myself a teacher. However, the memory that still hurts? Being told by this woman that it was a good thing I had no children of my own because obviously I didn’t have the moral fiber to raise a child if this was the kind of book I thought was appropriate for a seventeen year old child to read.
I weathered that storm and then two years later another parent came in. This time the IB book in question was Orlando by Virginia Woolf. This mother was a bit less vitriolic in her assessment of my choice of literature, however she did ask me, “Just what is your agenda, teaching this book to young people? What are you hoping they will do with this information about a person who experiments with sex like this?” And yet again I found myself defending a book as well as myself against her claim I was attempting to subvert her son’s sexual orientation. And just like before, nothing I could say about the novel’s wonderful metaphors and allegories changed the parent’s view that not only was this book unacceptable for her child to read but that I had absolutely no business calling myself a teacher.
I am a mom. I protect my children from things that are unsuitable for them. I screen what my children read and the family is basically tv-free. I understand that both those mothers were really trying to keep their kids safe from what they felt would harm them.
But I also know that really, those moms wanted to keep their kids being, well, kids. How many parents sneak into kids’ rooms and retuck the blankets – even over the sleeping bodies of teens larger than the parents? How many parents secretly mourn the babies who have somehow turned into young people with thoughts and feelings and attitudes much closer to an adult than to a toddler? How many parents struggle with the fact that the little person who depended upon us for their every thing is quickly outgrowing us?
So as a mother, I get it. I understand why those moms were so upset to have a child on the cusp of adulthood and being terrified that the parent was losing hold on being the sole gatekeeper of everything in that child’s life.
But when parents want to censor everything his/her child experiences, all are affected. I am not saying let your child surf any old thing on the internet or read any book whose cover catches your child’s eye. But I am saying that parenting is a give and take dance that must, by its very nature, include some growing pains. There are novels out there that provide extremely valuable opportunities to talk to your child during a time when a parent is often the last person a teen wants to talk to about things. By censoring every book that a child has access to is to censor the ability for a child to have experiences adults may not even know the child needs. For example, if you are from a very small community with no racial or religious diversity, reading about such topics prepares that teen for the world he or she is most likely to enter once leaving home. If a child knows nothing about being bullied (thank goodness!) it may help that child understand the long-term effects of that bullying on a person. The ability for teens to grow and learn from situations experienced via the written word is a great gift. Imagine if all those gifts were gone because they had been found objectionable by someone else? No conversations can be shared if there is no catalyst for that conversation. For that reason, of none else, censorship should be done on a personal level rather than a broad one.
The enemy here is not the gatekeepers of teachers and librarians. Time is. How many parents read young adult literature and magazines? How many of us immerse ourselves in the world of teens instead of relying on our own experiences? The fact is, if you want to understand a population, you must read what it reads, listen to its music, study its art. Adults’ own experiences growing up are not valid substitutes and neither is a parent’s understanding of the child they raised since infancy.
Parents may not understand the extent to which teachers and librarians see the aspects of children that parents often don’t see. We see the side that is questioning everything in life trying to make meaning for itself. Every teen does this regardless of their upbringing. And the sides that teachers and librarians see begs for books that help explain the myriad of life’s variables that home and the familiar cannot.
The last time I had a parent tell me I was an immoral person because of the books I read and then ask teenagers to read I reminded her of this: the time I spend talking to your child in my classroom will never have as big of an impact as what you have been saying to your child over his/her lifetime. She left unconvinced. I was left bruised and crying in the darkness of my classroom. All these years later, the wound can still feel fresh.