Friday, September 11, 2009

You Can’t Say That at School

It could be that you haven't guessed this about me, but I'm a potty mouth. I swear all the time. I swear at while holding a tough yoga pose; I swear at bad drivers when I’m in traffic. I even swear around my college students. I’m not gratuitous; I’m calculating in my profanity, and it has a crucial purpose in my classroom: I want them to learn that sometimes it’s okay to swear. Yes, it’s true that as writers, we should be mining the English language for words that are so original and inventive that we don’t need profanity. I know this is an unpopular practice, in terms of classroom decorum, and might make parents uncomfortable. But I believe that the classroom is a place for questioning and discovery. The thing that’s elemental to this discovery is making sure each person feels like her voice can be expressed and be heard, regardless of its message or delivery. This isn’t to say I don’t create a place of safety for my students, safety as artists and as human beings; but every voice is allowed to be heard, and no voice is censored.

When I was in eighth grade I had my first brush with censorship: a parent of a girl in my social studies class discovered that we were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The woman discovered a scene of sexual assault, was outraged that her daughter would be assigned such filth, and made such a stink over our class reading the book, that we had to cease immediately, or the teacher would forfeit his job. I was really disappointed. This rape scene had been written with such subtlety I had completely missed it; but regardless, I didn’t see why one uptight mom should ruin it for the rest of it. Okay, if one mom doesn’t like it, she ought to be able to say so, especially at a public school; but why the school would allow one person’s morals to dictate everyone’s education was beyond me. The copies of Caged Bird went back into their cages. But I never forgot how upset I was at that mother for forcing her agenda on my social studies class. As soon as I could, I went out and bought a copy of that book, read it from cover to cover, and began reading banned books precisely because there was some establishment telling me what was and wasn’t okay to read.

Now the school year is barely a month old, and already there are heated debates about who and what to censor in classrooms. Political pundits and conservative groups got themselves all frothy about a speech President Obama delivered to the nation’s kids. There are probably a number of them who didn’t see it, because their parents kept them home, wanting to preserve their pure, virgin brains from the President’s offensive words. I suppose I should be happy that I don’t have to worry about this: I’m not being asked to sacrifice teaching time so the President’s voice could be heard, although if I were, I certainly would. But I’m happier that I don’t have to worry about forty sets of parents with their panties in a bunch demanding me to censor Obama’s voice in my classroom. To me the whole thing doesn’t sound like parents caring about kids’ education: it sounds like censorship. Education sometimes means exposing a mind to a line of thinking that is challenging, that is unusual, perhaps even downright offensive: you have to learn about the whole world in order to understand it, to ask questions of every system, not just the ones you disapprove of, and to read and communicate with those who disagree so that you can understand each other clearly and respectfully.

That, or you can just censor the bastards, bury your head in the sand, and pretend everything’s okay.

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