Earlier today I read John Spencer’s interesting blog about books that make students uncomfortable: books should make you feel uncomfortable
John mentioned that he disliked To Kill a Mockingbird, and many of us jumped in to defend the book. Atticus would have been proud! To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite childhood books. As an adult I still enjoy it because the novel gives a glimpse into Truman Capote’s childhood, and I love Capote.
One of John’s assertions is that English teachers often select “safe” literature, and I think most of us would agree that we frequently must assess what novels we want to teach, whether the books are appropriate for our students, and whether or not we have the strength, time, and perseverance to defend the book if a handful of parents complain.
We all have our horror stories.
Two decades ago I taught Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to two classes of ninth-grade honor students. Because I knew I might have a few parents complain about the profanity in the book, students had to have parental permission to read it, and I offered a substitute selection for parents and students who objected to the book. In the letter I explained that the book contained profanity in order to develop the characters.
I was happy to discover that all of the parents supported me and signed the permission forms. Several of them included notes thanking me for including Steinbeck’s little gem because it was one of their favorites.
A few days later, however, I was startled to discover that one child’s parents were unhappy and requested a parent conference. I was young, inexperienced, and uncomfortable when parents challenged anything I did. At the beginning of the conference the parents stated how upset they were that I assigned such “trash.” They then pulled out their copy of the book and showed me that they had highlighted all of the “dirty” words in the book. The book was awash in yellow highlights.
I listened calmly and never objected to anything they said even when they told me that such “trash” might be appropriate in some homes where parents do not emphasize high morals, but they would not tolerate the book in their home.
When they finished their tirade, I stated emphatically that I understood their concerns, and, although I thought the book was appropriate for students, I would never teach the book without parent permission. I then explained my process for obtaining parental permission and whipped out the permission form the student had turned in the previous week. “Here’s the form Mark gave me. As you can see, your signature is at the bottom of the page. Obviously, one of you gave your permission or your son forged the signature. I believe this is a problem you need to resolve in your own home not in a conference with me.”
In the South, we would say that the parents came in on their “high horse,” intent on showing me the evil of my ways.
They limped away from the conference on a donkey!
End of conference!
I’m sure the parents would have liked to have berated me for assigning such an evil book, but they were so embarrassed by their son’s forgery that they didn’t say anything except a very weak “I’m sorry.”
I kept that highlighted book for years, but I must have tossed it aside one day when I no longer thought it was strange for a parent to spend so much time hunting and highlighting objectionable words.