Gatekeepers and the C-word

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.

17 thoughts on “Gatekeepers and the C-word

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. So sorry for the narrow minds you encountered and even more sorry for the ways they may you feel.

    Books that – according to the Journal – may be “dark”, “inappropriate”, or whatever negative label people will come up with tomorrow – are ESSENTIAL for one HUGE and critical goal: education.

    I had the best experience a few months back when my son and I read Thirteen Reasons Why together and then blogged about it (review is on Goodreads as well as on my site, if you’re interested). I learned things I did not know about my son and about the sort of issues he faces on a daily basis. But we both came away from Mr. Asher’s story with something neither of us had considered before – an awareness of the ways our actions affect others. My son decided to go a step further and CHANGE some of his behaviors after reading this book, a book that deals with self-destructive behaviors, sex, and suicide.

    I think parents who lament YA for its ‘darkness’ are missing the point. Instead of forbidding teens to read certain titles, why not read them together? Discuss the situations, the themes, the characters. I was surprised by what I learned.

    More importantly, I was proud.

  2. Wow. Beautifully written and deeply sad. Kudos to you for hanging in as long as you did. Do you ever wonder what happened to the kids whose moms were so overbearing and judgmental, so closed to reality? Good literature is life-changing. Yes, some of it is hard to read, some of it deals with topics that make us, as parents and grandparents, feel uncomfortable. But my goodness, if well-trained, effective teachers cannot be trusted to make wise decisions about what their students read, then why have kids in school?? Oh yeah- everyone is home-schooling now. And too many of those may be doing so for exactly those reasons. (No overarching judgment against homeschooling is meant or implied by this comment. But the question is a valid one, nonetheless.) Thanks for this thought provoking essay.

  3. Very well put, Kristina. Soul Catcher, Catch-22, The Greening Of America, Slaughterhouse-5,(and any other Vonnegut & could get in Coffeyville, KS), Still Life w/ Woodpecker… these were the things I was reading in junior & Senior High.

    They confirmed ideas about the world I already had thought of, and gave me some new ideas, sometimes challenging ones to wrap my brain around.

    My parents never questioned what I read because they trusted me to be able to choose for myself.

    The kind of parents who came into your classroom to challenge you are, I suspect, the very kind a child wouldn’t go to w/ anything controversial. They would already know from experience that “dark” or potentially “scary” subjects would be met with negative reactions.

    I suspect you were a very fine teacher indeed.

  4. Whoa. You’d think you were taking a flamethrower to their precious little snowflakes.

    I feel sad for the over-sheltered teenagers of the world. If they’re not allowed exposure to anything the slightest bit “dark,” how will they ever develop their own filters?

    • I was struggling to find the words for my feelings after reading this entry. I stopped struggling as soon as I saw these words: “You’d think you were taking a flamethrower to their precious little snowflakes.”

      Being a parent–granted, only to a toddler at this point–has made me think a lot about my mom’s choices as a mom. She raised four children by herself after leaving an all-around abusive sumbitch. In that context, I suppose, it would have been hard for her not to address the darknesses of which the world is capable.

      Despite everything she’d been through, or perhaps because of it, my mom emphasized how much beauty there was in the world. She encouraged us to read whatever caught our fancy, excepting Sweet Valley High (which, of course, inspired me read every SVH I could get my hands on!), believing that exposing us to the hardness of the world would also help us to see the hope that would get us through tough times.

      She was right. She raised kids who experienced tough times with spirits and hope intact. We read dark things, sure, but most of those “dark things” involved some kind of triumph–if not necessarily always a happy ending.

      Folks were very forthright about calling my mom a bad mom. She did x wrong, y wrong, and z wrong. And her house! What a sty! There came a point where I started telling her I wished she’d stop listening to them and keep her eye on the finish line the way she’d taught us to. I said, roughly, that not all the moments leading up to the end will be beautiful, but more often than not, all of those moments are essential to getting there. But you can’t really see it it all clearly till the end.

      I’m not certain yet how exactly I’ll approach each hurdle yet to come. But when I remember all those people who felt it their right to tear my mom down for doing things differently than them? I smile, shake my head and wish I could say, “Between you and me? I’m doing it her way, my friend.”

      • You know what? Your mom did the best she could with the tools at hand. That’s all any of us can do. It’s obvious you felt loved — that’s the important thing. 🙂

        Also, if she could teach you to look for the beauty in a world that isn’t always beautiful, she gave you a skill that will carry you through life better than the blinders some parents seem to want to put on their children.

        I’m not saying ugliness should be thrown in children’s faces. But as they grow, they should at least become aware it exists, so they’ll be better able to cope with it when they head out into the world on their own. Part of protecting them is arming them with knowledge.

  5. Oh yeah, Brautigan – Trout Fishing in America & The Abortion, Heinlein- Number of the Beast, Carlos Casteneda – The Teachings of Don Juan(a Yaqui way of knowledge)

    Oh my God, what would they have thought of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales(required reading in my high school)

    Again you did fine I bet. Did I mention my oldest Brother, now retired, taught English, Theater, Art & music for about twenty years or so?….ok, I’ll quit there.

  6. Kristina, I graduated from the IB program and read both of the books listed in high school. Needless to say, I don’t get what the fuss was about. I’m so sorry that you had to be cast as the Evil Book Wielding Witch for those parents to feel like they were “parenting”. All of that said, I’m glad students and your children had a chance to have you as a teacher 🙂

  7. Teaching moral values are the responsibility of the parent. Educating youth on worldly issues is a share responsibility. Teaching in-depth on any one subject is a teacher’s responsibility. Job well done.

    Even though the pain from negative comments last often stings longer than the smiles of positive ones, remember how far and few between they really are. You were/are a phenomenal teacher. Think of the hundreds of students are better off for having you as a teacher.

    • I have a shoe box in my closet. It has 10 year’s worth of graduation party invitations, senior pictures, thank you cards, Christmas cards, little notes. All great memories from teaching. And believe it or not, I have memories of hundreds and hundreds of students. So mostly, that is what I remember. And what I miss most about teaching – witnessing minds grappling with stuff and the pride of a learner accomplishing things. But sometimes a story reminds me…nothing we do is in a vacuum. And those very few parents who did what they felt was right at that time and place stay with me as well. I’m too soft-hearted to not be changed by it all. Normally I don’t think about it and it stays in in my past. Just some days…well, it all comes up.

      You were a great student and a joy to have. I would have a class with you again – any day! 🙂

  8. I was fortunately raised by a mother who came from a family that loves books. She never stopped me from reading anything. Sometimes she read it, too, (if she hadn’t already) and we talked about it. The gatekeepers make me angry – especially the ones who won’t bother to read for themselves.

  9. I haven’t been reading your blog long enough to know why you left the teaching profession, but, selfishly, I’m sorry you did. It sounds like you were the kind of intelligent, open-minded, caring teacher I love my children to have.

    Last week I took my 15yo to the bookstore to buy the summer reading for next year’s high school junior English class – Huckleberry Finn. I said to her “Do you realize how many of your jr. high and high school reading has been on the banned books list? To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Lord of the Flies, etc.” She just shrugged.

    Last year, at the only PTA meeting I attended, a number of parents were complaining about the children’s assigned reading. “Why does everything they read have to be so depressing?” “This year they’re reading about the holocaust and last year they read about slavery. Can’t they read something that’s not sad?”

    Yes, as you said, almost every parent has an urge to keep our kids kids. After all, when they grow up they leave us. But’s that’s not our job, is it?

  10. You are so right about all the points you made about books you assigned to students. Some parents want to shelter their teens from everything and don’t want to let go gradually as their teens mature and become young adults. You were probably the type of teacher I would have wanted my child to have when she was in school and the type of teacher I want for my teenage granddaughters, while I see my daughter still wanting to protect them from the world. But yes, it is our job to raise them, and gently let them go.

  11. When I was a high school teacher, I was very immature myself. At times I tried to “rescue” lost adolescents. It’s hard to know if I did more harm than good.

    I taught in a very diverse high school in Seattle. Many of the black students were loud and assertive–race is a cultural phenomenon–not something having to do with character or intelligence. And there was quite a bit of variation.

    I remember one young black girl–a very shy, quiet, gentle young woman–reading Huckleberry Finn and asking me with quiet confusion why the book contained the word “nigger.” There was no way I could come up with an explanation of irony, satire, changes in cultural norms, and so on in a few sentences that would make sense to her. That was about 40 years ago. I hope her life turned out in a decent way that made sense to her.

  12. Your post really moved me. As a mother of two and a former teacher, I understand both a mother’s desire to protect the innocence of her children and a teacher’s desire to do what is best for her students. I think your disgruntled parents could have communicated with you in a more polite and civil manner, but some people don’t have the skills to express themselves effectively without hurting others.

    I love Y.A. literature and would usually borrow my daughters’ books when they finished them! This was a wonderful post!

  13. This debate could go on forever.

    I work in a small town, in the high school’s media center. We have some parents who come in LIVID with the Jr high reading list.

    They object to “Catcher in the Rye” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984.”

    I read these books, they definitely broadened my mind. And made me think like an adult. I felt like an adult reading them.

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