Great Literature in the Public Schools, Part 2
For Part 1 of this series, click here.
"Mommy, this is a really weird book with bad words in it."
My 10-year-old daughter had just stuffed everything into her backpack and was about to run outside to catch her bus to fourth grade. But she looked a little tentative and troubled, as she held a book out to me. “I don’t think you’ll like this, Mom.”
“What is it, honey?”
“It’s the book we’re reading in class right now, and it’s got bad words in it—and other weird stuff.”
It was a novel called The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I had never heard of the book or the author. “Hmmm,” I said to her, flipping through the book to try to get a quick sense of what my daughter had found disturbing. It didn’t take longer than a moment to find out. Gilly Hopkins, the 11-year-old protagonist and narrator of this novel for children, had a foul mouth. The book was studded thoughout with swear words and profanity--“hell,” “damn,” “dammit,” “Jeez,” and “my God.” No wonder that my daughter, who does not hear language like this at home, and who has been taught at Sunday school not to take the Lord’s name in vain, was disturbed not only by encountering this book, but by being assigned this book by her teacher in school. And so was I.
“Look at this,” my daughter said, pulling the book out of my hands and turning to a page early on in the book. “Read this, Mom. It's just...weird.”
The passage she had turned to was one where Gilly Hopkins comes face-to-face with an elderly black man. Evidently Gilly is also a racist, for the reader is then treated to Gilly’s bigoted internal dialogue against blacks and not wanting to ever have to touch “one of those people.” But that was not all. Gilly also called people all kinds of names, like “lard can,” and “bale of blubber,” thought Christians were “religious fanatics,” and on and on.
I don’t know who was made sicker by this passage—my daughter, for encountering its graphic ugliness and racism which she, in her innocence, barely even understood—or me, for realizing that this ugliness was being injected into my daughter’s life by her own teacher, without even a “by-your-leave.”
“You’re right,” I told her. “This is a weird book. You were right to bring it to me and tell me about it. I’m going to talk this over with your teacher.”
Having only recently wrangled at length with my son’s 9th-grade English teacher over the extreme profanity in his first assigned text (to no real avail), I was now in no mood to yet again open an extended diplomatic discussion about literary values or community standards. And I was really riled. Twice this situation was happening in our family in the span of just a few weeks. Not only was this déjà vu all over again, but now it was my 10-year-old being slipped swear words in fourth grade. My mother-tiger reflexes were in an uproar. What next? What’ll they do to up the ante in fifth grade—or in seventh? And why did somebody think that fourth-graders needed to study a book with this content and this language?? What educational goal was this intended to serve? And what or who was it actually serving?
My anger distilled my shock about all of this down to one point. I pounded out a brief, polite email to her teacher: “After the ‘Gilly Hopkins’ class assignment is completed, would you please not require my daughter to read any more books containing profanity?”
Then I checked my own copy of the book (a Newberry Award-winner, by the way) out of the public library and sat down and read it.
Some may say that the average 10-year-old child has already heard (on TV, or even at school or on the bus) these swear words, or that the average 10-year-old has already encountered lots of name-calling and instances of racism, aggression, stealing, cheating, lying, and all the other unsavory traits served up for contemplation and entertainment in The Great Gilly Hopkins. I can even hear the most cynical social critics saying that all children, even the most innocent and protected, should be forcibly exposed to such realities as part of their education. That the fictional Gilly Hopkins is an abandoned foster child struggling with these issues, and that she straightens out in the end of the book can be argued to be a moral tale.
But some argue that these kinds of dark, "realistic" moral dramas are being foisted upon our young readers too much, too soon.
That protected, privileged, well-behaved, civil, non-racist, non-profane children who come from a loving home (like mine, who are not average, do not watch network TV, and do not run unsupervised in the neighborhood or on the internet) need to learn sometime about what people are like who are not like them is a truism.
But so what? Beyond all of that, is it up to the school to decide when, where, and how to actively instill these moral lessons, or is that the business of the parents in conjunction with their churches, synagogues, Scout lodges, and community organizations?
And since when did the well-educated child have to be instructed in profanity by the schools, as part of their so-called education? I thought profanity on the school campus was rightfully discouraged and frowned-upon, grounds for detention or a visit to the principal’s office, not spoon-fed to the students in language arts reading circles. How ignorant I was.
For if your teacher is teaching you (by the detailed examples in novels like this one) how to swear (and along with it, how to steal, lie, cheat, and bully--especially if you are an unhappy "victim" of circumstances) then how can your teacher or your principal then turn around and without hypocrisy of the worst sort, demand you not do it? If it is so important that you must study it and include it in the classroom, then why rule out profanity on campus in the student handbook?
Am I the only one who sees the contradictions here? If this is confusing me, wouldn’t it confuse a child? And most bizarrely, why is this controversy between the home values and the school assignment taking place in the fourth grade? Am I the only one who suspects an agenda here? Is this the best our teachers can offer our students? Are these books intended to desensitize children to such language, and is that a valid educational goal? Or are they merely pandering to what they think is the “average” child’s curiosity and/or prurient interest in the “bad” and the “forbidden”? That my daughter found the book disturbing and “weird” I felt revealed a good honest reaction that I shared and applauded. That she told me it made her uncomfortable, I was glad of. She told an adult about something that made her uncomfortable, as she had been taught to do in the very same school. She did right; but what about the school’s role and responsibility in this particular encounter?
I thought parents and teachers were supposed to be working together for the good of the children. How much controversy can there be about that in the fourth grade? How much of what children need to be taught in the lower grades is open to controversy anyway—unless opened by the school, that is?
My daughter’s teacher emailed back and apologized, saying my daughter could be given an alternate assignment, and assuring me the book had been approved by our county. (Big whooping deal; my internet surfing had by now taught me that this is no longer any guarantee of anything). I wrote back and said it was probably too late to excuse my daughter from the reading assignment without singling her out among her classmates for undue attention. But in the next week or so my daughter told me that the teacher had let the whole class drop The Great Gilly Hopkins and was reading something else without such sensational content. Whatever educational value fourth-graders are meant to receive from Gilly Hopkins, I hope they are able to find substitutes for it among the thousands of other high-quality books used by good teachers for generations.
Perhaps I wasn’t the only parent who had registered an objection. That thought cheers me.
I did not voice my displeasure earlier in the year, when the same teacher was reading aloud to my daughter’s class “a really funny book” (as my daughter described it) called There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar. My daughter came home talking about “making out” thanks to this book, so I checked it out of the library and read it myself. It had more name-calling, violence, and bathroom matters in it than I cared for, but I decided it wasn’t worth making a fuss about, and let it pass. But why a teacher would dwell on bathroom subjects in the classroom, in lieu of other, better books to read to the children, I couldn’t fathom (and I wished she hadn’t). Maybe I should’ve mentioned my alternate viewpoint to her then.
One thing I do know is that I will now continue to raise my objections and at least let my voice (crying alone in the wilderness?) be heard. My hitherto innocent/ignorant trust and good-will faith in the teachers is gone and I can no longer assume all of them are my buddies or partners or share my values as they (otherwise nice people that they are) diligently dedicate themselves for hours on end to educating my children.
I have always been involved in my kids’ schooling (considering their education to be ultimately my responsibility, and viewing the public schools as merely our place to outsource the bulk of the daily instruction and resources for the present, subject to revision or revocation at any time). I keep in touch with the teachers, volunteer in the schools, monitor what I think is going on. Now I also check in advance (on Amazon.com’s reviews or by Googling) the books my children are assigned.
Sad to say, I believe now that some teachers, counselors, staff (including librarians), and administrators deliberately slip in sensational, controversial, and inappropriate texts and lessons to our children without wanting the parents to know. This is unconscionable (and unfortunately does not only happen in public schools but in private ones as well). There does not really need to be any controversial content delivered to elementary school children unless the teachers, administration, or staff have a personal, ideological, or political agenda driving them to do so. That they would do this against parents’ wishes or behind parents’ backs in the name of “educating” the children is despicable.
It’s all over the U.S. and it’s getting worse.
And the literature waved in front of my daughter will only get worse as she gets older.
And worse. (Have you checked out the PreTeen and Teen or Young Adult sections of your local book store or public library lately? Meanwhile, some parents are still trying to get Harry Potter banned from school libraries!)
I feel sorry for the next generation of girls.
Where are the teachers who want to pass on the love of real literature?
Here's one: Beyond Nancy Drew and back into literature...
(I'm relieved at this point that my daughter is choosing Nancy Drew from her school library instead of something worse, but how long will that last?)
To be continued.... Part 3: “Banned Books Week” at the school library