It was September 1996, back-to-school night. I got through periods 1-4 easily. Then came period 5, my average sophomores. No parents brought kids, so it was me and maybe 8 or 10 parents. I went through my spiel, looked around, asked if there were any questions. All of a sudden, I was getting questions about why their students were reading Of Mice and Men, the text I had introduced in class that week. It’s filthy. It has bad words. It has the N-word. Why can’t they read something more uplifting? My child is not going to read this. And mostly, We’re Christians and that’s why we are doing this to you. Right here. Right now. In front of all the other parents. Without a word of warning. Because this is what Jesus wants us to do.
It was my 3rd year. I’d endured a lot the first two years. This shouldn’t have particularly phased me, but it was so unexpected and felt so calculated that it did. I don’t know what I said to them and I don’t know how I got through the period 6 group, but I somehow got home to my sympathetic roommate (who, a few days later came home from her own grade 1 back-to-school night and told me the parents wanted to ban “Mary Wore her Red Dress” because it was about adultery. I WAS able to laugh by then.)
The next day I received a 3-page-handwritten letter from one parent reiterating how she just could not understand how I could be so awful as to assign such a book. And the same parents whom I guess I failed to reassure at back-to-school night–because I was completely blind-sided and had no idea what to say–called the new principal and he completely undercut me and my authority. Of course it was school policy that the students would not have to read the book if the parents objected, but he should have referred them back to me and let me tell them that instead of making it sound like he, the all-powerful principal, would force my hand. And we ended up having to have a teacher-student-parent-principal conference because I hurt ones boy’s very precious feelings. (This was an ongoing issue with this boy, but the principal didn’t check that out ahead of time. Evidently everyone was against him and treated him unfairly.) And, again, the principal did nothing to stand up for me.
We got through the next month or so while I taught most of the class Of Mice and Men and about 5 kids read another approved book and did independent work on it. Most of them didn’t bother.
Near the end of the year, I was chatting with one of the boys who hadn’t read the book and he brought up the situation. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “we thought we wouldn’t have to do anything if we showed our moms there were cuss words in the book.” My nightmare was based on their laziness. And their parents had no clue.
A year or so later his mom, an aid at the school, was trying to make small talk with me in the teacher’s lounge. I found I had nothing to say to her. Nothing. That probably wasn’t a very Christian response, but I didn’t even understand why she was trying to speak with me. I’m sure to this day she and the other parents feel as if they did a very good thing that night. Or they never thought about it again.
Later, after her son had graduated, I could chat with her about him–because I really did like him–but that was about it. I’d like to think I’ve matured since then and would handle things differently now.
I don’t think books should be pulled off shelves so no one can read them. I also don’t think students should be forced to read books they find truly objectionable. But I do think they should be pretty sure of their motives and handle things in a way that respects the teacher who has made his/her choice for a reason.
I learned one thing that year. I never again started the year with Of Mice and Men. Teaching it at the end of the year, I never had another objection.
I think I’ll read some L’Engle or Lewis or Steinbeck or Twain or Rowling tonight in honor of banned books week. And here’s a fun (though old) Onion article on the subject: “Nation’s Teens Disappointed by Banned Books“. I think my students were already there in ’96.
Happy reading, folks!