Wading Into Controversy

Steven Harper PiziksThe school where I teach is adding some new books to the curriculum.  Yay!  I’ve been agitating for some changes to English 9 and English 12 because all the books and plays we read are by white men.  No minority writers, no women.  Inexcusable!

The English department came into some book money recently, and we spent considerable time reading and discussing additions.  We made several, but the ones that startled me most landed in English 9 and English 12.

In English 9 we’re adding THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME by Mark Haddon.  It’s the enormously famous book about an autistic teenager in London who sets out to solve the murder of the dog next door.  Although the author is a a white male, the book is told from the point of view of the autistic protagonist, and we have a great many autistic students at Nameless High School.

Another English teacher and I had actually advocated for this book in English 9 a few years ago, but the idea was turned down, which is why I was surprised the book went through now.  The reason for the rejection?  The book uses the word “fuck” nine times.  I was careful to point this out again this time, but no one deemed it a problem.  “We teach OF MICE AND MEN, and it has the N word in it,” one of the department members pointed out.  I just nodded.  I had used that same argument last time, but was overruled.  Huh.  Things can change in a few years.

In English 12 we adding THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker.  This is another controversial book in high schools because of the strong language, sex, and lesbian themes.  It was, in fact, briefly taught about 15 years ago at one of the other schools in the district and caused a ruckus.  However, the ruckus was mostly over the fact that the teacher hadn’t read the book.  She had decided to teach a novel she hadn’t read to her students to show them that she didn’t have an “answer key” to themes and symbols and all that, and that she would discover these things along with them.  So the adult themes and situations caught everyone off-guard–the teacher didn’t prepare the class because she didn’t know. The students were also tenth graders, rather younger than seniors.  And parents complained.

However–and this is one thing I like about my school district–Wherever Schools is hesitant to ban books outright.  After much discussion, the school decided not to ban the book but to designate the book for English 10 Honors.  Since it had become such a big deal, though, no other teacher wanted to get into another fight, so the book quietly disappeared from the curriculum.

Now we’re bringing it back.  I’m happy!  We’re air-lifting TARTUFFE out (no matter how hard we try, none of us English 12 teachers have gotten the seniors to respond well to Moliere) and replacing it with PURPLE.  I’m looking forward to teaching it.

However, I’m wondering if there’ll be any blowback.  I’ve had some parents object to OF MICE AND MEN, and a few times parents have pulled their kids from the unit entirely over the language issue.  Recently, in fact.  CURIOUS INCIDENT and PURPLE both have stronger language.  I don’t quite understand this sensitivity–if you spend more than three minutes in the hall at school, you’ll hear every word from both books several times over.  It’s not like the students don’t know these words or use such words themselves a hundred times a day.

But we’ll see what happens…

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Wading Into Controversy — 3 Comments

    • This is true, and possibly it is a good thing, but it sure makes talking about books difficult with some parents. I once had a dad object to Romeo and Juliet not because of the suicides, but because the teenagers disobeyed their parents.

      • And this is when you know that some people really are aliens from other planets. Problem is, are they the aliens, or are we the aliens?