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On banning books, a new Florida law, and hooking students on the joys of Shakespeare

A Florida parent wants his child’s school to remove a memoir written for young adult readers that includes the word “penis.” Another wants Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” his dystopian novel about book banning, banned. Another wants “opposing perspectives” to evolution and global warming required teaching in science classes.

Richard Schwartz

No kids of your own? That’s OK. Their state legislature passed a bill this year allowing residents in any school district, “regardless of whether she or she has a child in school” a hearing before an “outside mediator” if they disapprove of what is or isn’t being taught.  

This revitalized book banning talk reminds me of these incidents during my teaching career … 

Against the advice of a more experienced colleague, I choose Dalton  Trumbo’s gut-wrenching anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” to read with my students.

We begin with my reading to them: “Book 1: The Dead.”

Me: “… It sounded like it was ringing in a room about a million miles wide. His head was a million miles wide too. To hell with the telephone. That damn bell must be at the other side of the world. …”

I stumble through these two sentences because some words have been blacked out with a permanent marker. Guess which ones.

Student: “My book is all marked up.”

Another student: “Mine, too.”

Me: “Raise your hand if your book has words blacked out.”

Everyone raises a hand. I flip deeper into my book. More words are blacked out. Then I get to what should have been Chapter XIV. It’s not there.

After school I search the school library for a clean copy, but the librarian says she removed it from the shelf. That night I buy one at the bookstore. I read the targeted words: damn, hell, goddamn, sons-of-bitches, dirty bastards, for Christ sake – just in Chapter I. 

As for Chapter XIV, to summarize: A young American soldier, Joe Bonham, horribly maimed and disfigured in battle during World War I, is lying in a hospital bed, his arms and legs amputated, his face blown apart. He has no means to communicate with his caregivers. Then, about midway in the chapter the narrator implies that Bonham’s compassionate nurse masturbates him: (“Her hands sought out the far parts of his body. They inflamed his nerves with a kind of false passion that fled in little tremors along the surface of his skin.”) 

The next morning I seek out Miss Willow, our department chair and matriarch of the English Department, and ask about the censored pages. She has no concern, explaining that “our parents” don’t want their children exposed to inappropriate words and descriptions “of things that might give them ideas.” Besides, she adds, those words and discarded pages “don’t add much to the story.” I argue that the school wilted under parent pressure. Miss Willow counters it isn’t censoring, “… since students are allowed to read the novel, aren’t they?” 

The next day I explain to my students that I’ll be reading the “missing parts” to them; however, if anyone feels uncomfortable they may leave the classroom. No one leaves.

The next day the books are confiscated, and I receive a letter of reprimand from the principal.

***

I am a high school junior sitting with my date in the balcony of the Academy Theater in 1968 watching the newly released “Romeo and Juliet.” When Olivia Hussey (“Juliet”) asks her way-too-good-looking-Romeo, “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” my heart hammers. Nevertheless, I cling to Shakespeare’s words, a far cry from the sleep-inducing reading of “Julius Caesar” in sophomore English. But now! Here was director Franco Zeffirelli’s scintillating glimpse of Olivia’s nakedness when her innocent (or is it a come-hither?) question is addressed later in the film. (It’s possible my date assumes her charms are the cause of my condition up there in the darkness. She’s wrong. It’s Olivia Hussey, the first infatuation of my life and the beginning of my life-long love affair with Shakespeare, thanks to her.

So naturally, years later, I cue up the same film for my students to watch as we read the play. If this doesn’t hook them on Shakespeare …

It does. A parent calls the school. From the principal’s notes: “Are you aware that this teacher is showing a pornographic film with “bare bottoms, excessive cleavage and teenagers having sex?” No telling what might have happened had I chosen to explain the play’s multiple bawdy and funny (at least to 16th-century audiences) innuendos like thumb-biting, “cold beds,” “quivering thighs,” and of course, “spirit” – the 16th-century slang for semen. 

Speaking of “bawdy”…

When I begin reciting the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English (“Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Cauntebury: Whan in April with his shoures soote …”) so also begins my students’ bellyaching about why they “hafta read this.”

Despite their grousing, we dive (or belly flop) into our abridged study of Chaucer starting with a mini-lesson on Middle English pronunciation and followed by the reading of just two of the many tales, told by Chaucer’s patchwork of characters making their 14th-century pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, who regale each other in a contest of storytelling to pass the time.

First, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: Chaucer describes her as “gap-toothed,” which for some reason back then suggested a woman’s sensuality and insatiable lust. My students like this, as demonstrated by their earnest examination of one another’s teeth alignments.

Next, the headliner, “The Miller’s Tale,” whose story, Chaucer warns the reader, might seem to some a bit raunchy. Hearing that, even my back-row dozers perk up.

What follows below brought not an ounce of concern from parents. So why do I include it in this discussion? Because in Florida, it now seems reasonable to think these two words could generate a hearing “before an outside mediator.” Could it happen here in Minnesota, too?

Sex and flatulence.

There is increasing buy-in as my students read deeper into the Miller’s tale of sex, trickery, more sex, a prank gone wrong (or right, depending upon your point of view) and more sex. But the deal is sealed for all when for reasons you can investigate on your own the Miller tells his fellow pilgrims: 

… This Nicholas anon leet flie a fart

As greet as it had been a thonder-dent …

Just when Cassie B. reads these lines in proper-sounding Middle English (By the way, the students can hardly believe the word fart existed in the 1300s), Charley, maybe in cahoots with Cassie, lets fly his own perfectly synchronized blast of flatulence. His impressed and elated classmates reward Charley with a rousing standing ovation.

Clearly, they understand Middle English.

But I think we have to do more than just hope that a parent or resident doesn’t get wind of “The Miller’s Tale” and attempt to ban students from this work’s joy and wisdom. I believe now more than before that it could more easily happen, along with the works of say, Toni Morrison, Charles Darwin, Harper Lee, Dalton Trumbo, J.K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury and of course, Mark Twain, whose classic “Huck Finn” was, not many years ago, banned from a school in Virginia – Mark Twain Intermediate School.

Richard Schwartz is a retired teacher living in Minneapolis. Like most retired high school English teachers, he is trying to write a book.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2017 - 09:12 am.

    Yeah but…

    How’s Middle English going to get a kid a responsible job at McDonald’s? Although I must say I would get a kick out of hearing: “McDonald’s welcomes thee. Dost thy have an order to place?”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/11/2017 - 10:45 am.

      Submitted for Your Consideration

      Look online for the cease-and-desist notice Anheuser-Busch sent to Modist Brewing Company.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/11/2017 - 10:31 am.

    Book banning

    I worry that we are entering an era that books aren’t banned because they don’t matter enough. In Fahrenheit 451, are books burned out of fear that people will read them or because they are just gathering too much dust?

  3. Submitted by Richard Adair on 12/11/2017 - 11:46 am.

    more from Romeo and Juliet

    You forgot “the bawdy hand of the dial is on the prick of noon”, Act 2, scene 4. One of the highlights of high school English, for sure.

  4. Submitted by Michael Stafford on 12/11/2017 - 01:37 pm.

    Miss Willow

    I bet Miss Willow knew it was Dalton not “Daniel” Trumbo

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/11/2017 - 04:42 pm.

    “I argue that the school

    “I argue that the school wilted under parent pressure.”

    The horror…..the…horror.

    Point of clarification for the author and other interested parties:

    When parents *entrust* their kids to school, public or private, they in no way relinquish their RIGHT to instruct their kids as they please. We can argue the wisdom of censoring books for high school students, but we cannot ever seek to put our opinions above the wishes of parents.

    This story sounds extreme, but we have seen what happened when Hollywood discarded it’s self imposed decency standards. Perhaps these parents have taken note of that, too.

    My kids attended a private school, where I didn’t have to worry about a teacher deciding the standards of decency (“sex and more sex”, indeed), which is well for all concerned.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schwartz on 12/11/2017 - 09:39 pm.

    Correct

    Good catch, Michael. Thank you.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/12/2017 - 10:00 pm.

    I am afraid things are actually even worse. If kids don’t read a word “penis” or see a naked body while in school, they sooner or later (most likely sooner) will do it outside of school. But if they don’t hear about certain ideas and truthful explanation of other ideas in school, most likely they never will. And that is why, for example, young people don’t know what real socialism is…

  8. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2017 - 10:32 am.

    Why Young People Don’t Know What Socialism Is

    They don’t see enough penises in school?

    But seriously, I can see what you’re getting at and don’t necessarily disagree. The more effective approach, in my opinion, is to give students to think critically. Rather than exposing them to a menu of ideas, encourage them to explore on their own and come to conclusions through their own thinking.

    Instead of telling students to pick from column A or column B, encourage them to come up with a column C.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/13/2017 - 09:43 pm.

      Thinking critically is not the most effective approach – it is a “must use” and “the only” approach. But unfortunately, it’s not the case. According to New York University sociologist Richard Arum’ research, critical thinking is lacking in colleges https://www.commondreams.org/news/2011/10/17/study-many-college-students-not-learning-think-critically. However, a necessary part of a critical thinking process is knowledge and familiarity and understanding of the facts. So students really still need to know column A and B and then create a column C… And A and B may be “penis” meaning and history of Socialism in the world…

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