Lessons Beyond Reading… and Administration
The truth — unfortunate or fortunate — is that I read much more explicit, more sexually descriptive texts for school work than Will Clarke’s “How to Kill a Boy That No One Liked” (PDF sample courtesy of Dan Yorke), including, for example, books by Stephen King in which not a few young fellas likely knew the page numbers of the really juicy parts. There are two significant differences between that memory and the circumstances in which her daughter came to read Clarke’s essay to which Lori Drew of Cumberland objects: I read such books for pick-your-own-book projects, so the onus for my choices ultimately rested with myself and my parents, and the readings were generally additional to the basic requirements. In the case of Ms. Drew’s daughter, the text was specifically handed out, and it was meant to be compelling for unaccomplished and reluctant readers, presumably in place of the more appropriate materials that they would not read.
That last point is the worrying one, in the context (the subtext, one might say) of what the grownups are saying just below the surface. From the Projo story, here’s Cumberland School Committee Chairman Frederic C. Crowley:
“It’s no Catcher in the Rye, and there is language that is offensive in the essay, but no more than what kids are exposed to in music, video games, television shows and movies,” he said. “I think it’s a very appropriate decision. [Morelle] handled the issue immediately and she handled it correctly.”
Here’s John McNally, the editor of the book containing Clarke’s story:
I’m not a scientist, so I don’t tell scientists what to do. I’m not a physician, so I don’t tell my doctor how he should treat me. But when it comes to “art,” people who know nothing about it are quick to make uninformed judgments in the name of “protecting” their children from what … the words on the page? The ideas connected to the words? The images the words may conjure in the reader’s head?
And Here’s Mr. Clarke himself:
Look lady, leave that poor teacher who assigned my story alone. And stop talking about sex with animals to every person with a microphone. You got your daughter out of the reading class and into a free office worker period where her mind won’t be ruined by books. What else do you want?
Thus, with the ease of badminton quips, whacking a double-sized shuttlecock, the distant cultural missionaries, once invited in, proceed to force conscientious objectors out of their own classrooms. The point that Clarke studiously ignores is that Lori Drew does not want her daughter to miss out on her reading class, and it’s a sneering vanity in the line of thought from the author through the school officials through the teacher herself that insists that the school establishment compromise the education of children whose parents have moral objections rather than conform the curriculum to basic minimum of standards of taste amenable to all, especially given the specific objective of a reading assignment. The children in Miss Drew’s class are in need of additional help; the burden of adults’ canned counterestablishmentarianism oughtn’t be placed on their shoulders.
McNally recites the oft-employed reasoning that artists know art, and implies that those with less finely tuned aesthetic senses are foolish to fear words, images, or even ideas. Having strung words into a book or two, myself, I’ll testify that it is a poor artist, indeed, who isn’t fascinated — even awe-struck — by the power of that very triumvirate. (Come now, Mr. McNally, let’s dispense with the faux innocence with respect to this poorly kept secret.) Moreover, in her attempt to push anything consisting of the English language past the eyes of her reluctant readers, those three aspects are certainly what attracted the teacher to Clarke in the first place.
There’s a more direct, less abstract response to McNally, however: If the parents are out of their depth interpreting the texts in his book, how much more so will the children be? What message are they receiving from When I Was a Loser? One author defends Clarke by pointing out that his own essay in the book is far more explicit. The Providence Journal story describes another essay about a young woman who “rationalized her secret sexual promiscuity and her image as a good Christian girl.”
In this light, Clarke’s essay may be the more deleterious. Having read only what Dan Yorke has made available (because I lack the interest to purchase the book and the time to read it in the aisle of a book store or library), I cannot say without disclaimer, but the take-away appears to be that sex sells, even when it is hidden — the supposedly benign three letters of the word itself — in a student-politician’s campaign poster. That may be true enough, but is that a lesson that must receive a school’s imprimatur, within a behind-the-curve reading class? Such kids are facing high enough hurdles without the school’s reinforcing and legitimizing the corruptive lessons of “music, video games, television shows and movies.”
Authors write as they wish, and we ignore at our peril the reality that people sinking in mire must by necessity grab for redemptive vines covered in the same muck. The real illness on display, it seems to me, is in the fear of mere “connotations” that has kept School Superintendent Donna Morelle from responding more appropriately to the needs of an actual student, and her family, within her care:
“We’re not banning books or anything like that,” Morelle said. “There’s a whole set of connotations about banning books. That’s not a boundary that I’m ever willing to cross.”
As if books are not removed from reading lists (or kept off them in the first place) for a range of reasons all requiring judgment of some fashion. Yeah, banning books is bad. Repressive. I’ve seen that movie, too. But sometimes grownups have to question their own moral absolutes for the sake of those under their power. And sometimes parents have better standing (let alone a right) to determine whether the grimy threads will reach their children as lifelines or as a net.