Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Tale of Two Stories

There was a very interesting article in the Sept. issue of Texas Monthly called "The Good Book and the Bad Book" by John Spong. In it he tells the story of St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, and the fallout from one teacher's decision to have her senior literature class read Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. The article is behind the veil at texasmonthly.com and too long to reprint here, but it is very well-written and thought-provoking. So much so, I have been driven to post again after quite a long absence.

The tale begins when teacher Kimberly Horne decided to present Brokeback Mountain in her senior English class in 2001-2002. At the time a little known magazine article that had been included in some anthologies, the story proved an instructive example of language and tone, abstract and specific, alienation and acceptance, just the sort of material teachers look for in pushing their seniors to the next level in preparation for college.

There was little or no controversy over the book until four years later, just about the time the movie came out. Suddenly, certain parents did not want their children exposed to this book. One large donor to the school's building fund withdrew their 3 million dollar pledge after the school's Head decided to back her teacher and the school's curriculum. The donor, Kate McNair, explains, "We assumed this was a Christian school, and these kinds of materials would not be handed to our children. We're not a bunch of homophobes, we just don't want our children reading smut...snip...I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That is my faith. But we came to find out this was not a Christian school. It is Episcopal. And shame on me for not knowing what the Episcopal Church has gone through the past few years. If they took the word 'Christian' out of their mission statement, that would be different. But they won't. And they messed with us."

Now, never mind the way McNair denigrates Christians who do not happen to to agree with her on the inerrancy of the Bible. Even though we happen to outnumber her 3:1, we aren't Real Christians. Thinking about that would make me mad, and I don't want to go there right now. Also, don't imagine the ramifications of her ilk getting a hold of the school's science curriculum, but it would be a lot like Kansas', Toto. The thing to remember is that these are 17 & 18 year old college-bound young adults who presumably have the free will to read or see whatever they choose and ask yourself if this is the most graphic, objectionable thing they have experienced this year? If the students are old enough to choose to read or view sexual or violent content their parents disapprove of, shouldn't the school give them the tools to evaluate it?

Spong ends this tale with the words of the author and the teacher. Brokeback Mountain ends, "There was some open spaces between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it." Horne believe this is the most powerful line of the story. She pushes the students to ask themselves what is broken, the characters or the world they live in. Horne explains," Someone in this book is presumably hit upside the head with a tire iron and killed. I don't worry that any of the students are going to grow up and hit anyone with a tire iron. But I think we can break each other in smaller ways. So if we live in a broken world, what part do we play in it?"

Unfortunately, within Good Book/Bad Book, there is another story to be told, about another family, another assignment, another controversy. And this one has me troubled because as much as I disagree with the banning of books, I think that on some subjects we should give students to right to choose.

The year of the Brokeback rebellion, Rachel Bowling was a student in Kimberly Horne's senior English class. While Rachel's parents were not impressed with the teacher's choice of the Proulx novel for their daughter, they as a family had decided to wait until the end of the year and see if the other parents were successful in removing it from the reading list. Long before that time came however, Horne assigned the novel The God of Small Things, which includes a very graphic, detailed account of child abuse, and to this the Bowlings said no.

Now to disclose my dirty little secret. I do not believe that graphic, detailed accounts of child abuse should be required reading for high school students. I don't think graphic, detailed accounts of child abuse should be required reading for anyone. There are things I simply cannot read, no matter what the provocation, and child abuse is one of them. I know of people who have been to war, who cannot read or watch coverage of Iraq. I know of people who were in New York on 9/11 and cannot watch the new Oliver Stone movie, World Trade Center.

As adults we pick and choose the things we can and can't deal with. Should we be less careful of our children's needs and feelings? Should they not be accorded the same rights as the rest of us to refrain from studying something that might make them literally sick to think about. A student who has experienced abuse, or lost a parent in war or tragedy, could be additionally traumatized by being forced to study that which damaged them to begin with. Where do we draw the line between enlightenment and injury?

I have no definitive answer to the questions I've posed here, but I do have a thought. Education is not about teaching what to think, but how to think. If a student can explain for themselves why a certain topic is not within their comfort zone, shouldn't they be allowed to find a suitable replacement that is? At the end of the day the system should fit the students and not the other way around. Books themselves are not good or bad in a moral sense but depend on their circumstances and situation. As parents and educators it is our job to fix the problem so that students aren't broken in the process.