Who Gets to Choose Which Childhood Experiences Are 'Appropriate'?
As a member of the Standing Committee Against Censorship for the National Council of Teachers of English, I am tasked with addressing heated debates about censorship, banned books, and other controversial issues. The gravity of this work is highlighted during this week’s Banned Books Week, an annual initiative that emphasizes our inherent right to read.
In 2017, censorship has been translated into the issue of "text appropriateness." This is the argument that powers the growing frequency with which books in schools are challenged by individuals (such as the parents who sought to ban Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian from a Minnesota school district because of profanity and sexual references) and legislation (like Florida’s recent attempt to make it easier for parents and community members to challenge curriculum they personally find offensive).
When I consider the grade- and age-appropriateness debate as it implicates text selection in classrooms, I tend to default to images of angry parents. I see parents unleashing their opposition, say, during a meeting with a school principal—or worse yet, during a school board meeting with elected board members.
But I do not remember encountering much parental opposition during my own time as a middle school teacher less than a decade ago. Instead, my classroom literature selection was often stifled and dictated by fellow teachers.
The Educator’s Dilemma
I recall having a conversation with another English teacher in my school about my desire to teach A Child Called 'It' by Dave Pelzer. The book tells the true story of Pelzer’s childhood as he suffered unconscionable abuse at the hands of his mother. Whether I’d be able to secure this text for my classroom rested on my colleagues' agreement, as we were all required to teach the same texts. One colleague was particularly distraught by my suggestion.
"You know what A Child Called 'It' is about, right?" she asked me, visibly stunned.
"Um... yes," I replied. "That’s why I want to teach it."
"I’m not agreeing to that," she said. "Our students are entitled to a blissful childhood, and they do not need to be privy to that boy’s story."
It has been more than 10 years since this conversation, and I still vividly recall her use of the word "blissful" to describe our students’ lives. I also remember being required to teach Roald Dahl’s Matilda to my 7th and 8th grade students the following year—a book that, according to most lists I’ve seen, is not typically used beyond 5th grade.
For my colleague, teaching a text that is far below grade level by nearly every measure was more appropriate than teaching a book that, while containing troubling content, was more intellectually challenging.
The World Outside the Classroom
As a new teacher, I figured it was politically savvy to drop the subject. But it may have surprised my colleague to learn that by the time I had turned 13, one of my peers was shot dead in her New York City neighborhood, not that far from my own; I witnessed the angry dissolution of my parents' marriage and my father's alcohol addiction, which led to a string of ruined holidays and, eventually, my father’s in-patient rehab; I watched my mother make financial and personal sacrifices in order to provide for my sister and me; and I learned about the substance abuse and drug addiction tormenting my extended family—leading to family feuds that even the worst of today’s reality television would likely find stunning.
I remember, as a child, feeling horrifically alone in this. If my peers brought similar experiences to the classroom, no one ever talked about it. On the surface, my young life—and the silences I maintained about my outside-of-school experiences—indeed appeared "blissful."
Years later, I also came to know what some of my middle school students brought to the classroom: the 8th grader with the newly broken family unit; the 7th grader whose father made him eat pizza out of the garbage; the 8th grader forced to publicly face her mother’s substance abuse after the family name was posted in the police blotter; and another 8th grader whose dad’s service to the country required him to spend more time overseas than at home. The list goes on.
The Benefits of Exposure
Hard as some parents and guardians might try to shield their children from life's difficulties and cruelties, other students bring adult issues to our classrooms. I certainly did. My students certainly did. An "appropriate" text, then, is also a text that honors this reality. Students who see their experiences—however difficult—reflected in the books they are asked to read might be provided with a coping mechanism through literature.
For example, the well-known young adult novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson addresses the issue of teenage rape—a problem that Anderson’s supporters argue needs to be discussed. Children and teenagers lucky enough to live blissful lives—the kind of lives my colleague assumed to be the rule, and not the exception—are also served well by texts that illustrate the real trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence. Such texts help to build empathetic classroom communities with a more complex understanding of the world, whether or not students have personally experienced such complexities.
Maybe choosing a below-grade-level text about a child with superpowers was my colleague’s careful way of inviting some children to leave their out-of-school lives at the door; an invitation to "forget," for just a little while, about their own baggage. But the fact remains that a story about my life, had one been written, likely would have been considered "inappropriate" for my peers to consume—even though I was living it.
Ultimately, text selection involves making decisions about the experiences that "matter" and those that do not. For this reason, it seems that text appropriateness is far more about adult denial, desperation, and delusions than it is about the needs and lives of young people. In our desperate quest to deny reality, we educators fail to honor our students’ need to feel normal and be validated—needs that emerge because of, and perhaps in spite of, what they bring to the classroom.