I’ve been teaching high school English for four years. Until last year, at no point during my time in the classroom had I contended with serious objections to any reading material I’ve selected for my students (as opposed to un-serious objections like, ‘I hate reading’ or ‘This is boring’), either from parents or from students themselves. I’ve used Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, A Lesson Before Dying, Zeitoun, The Great Gatsby, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn numerous times in my teaching, and despite each of those being books routinely challenged by parents and school boards as unfit for use in high school curricula, I’d never fielded a single concern with regards to the content of any of them. Each time I taught one of these books I carefully and honestly explained the kind of language and situations that students were likely to find in the novels, and made it clear that I didn’t expect them to recite or discuss anything that made them legitimately uncomfortable. Again, I never had an issue.
Then I assigned Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Honestly, I was nervous about assigning the book in the first place, despite having read the book (twice) myself and soliciting the opinions of a few fellow teachers, all of whom understood my concerns but generally felt that I could trust that history would repeat itself and that I would have nothing to worry about. In total, four students came to me to express concerns over the book’s content. I teach about 110 students, so this number is certainly not immense. I quickly and without question offered the students an alternate assignment, my classes spent a week in discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I thought that was the last I’d hear on the subject. One of the four students who requested an alternate assignment, however, had done so at the behest of her incensed parents, who, according to her, upon discovering the use of the “F -word” (or derivatives) on page 94, confiscated the book and started sending our superintendent and district curriculum supervisor emails demanding that the book be removed from the reading list and to know why such a book was assigned in the first place.
When I was notified about the emails, I was – understandably, I think – frustrated. Not because I disagreed with these parents’ assessment of the novel’s value (needless to say, I do), but because rather than address their concerns to me directly, they went about eight steps over my head. To both our superintendent’s and curriculum director’s credit, they did not make any promises about seeing me hanged, nor did they ready their guns and their questions, in that order. No, they thankfully just passed the parents’ concern to one of our assistant principals and asked that we contact them to discuss their particular concerns. The parents were not satisfied by this measure. After again petitioning the higher ups at Central Office, we (the assistant principal and I) were finally able to schedule a meeting with them.
I spent the few days leading up to the meeting alternately furious and anxiety-ridden. On the one hand: literary merit, AP classes are preparation for college, diversity of curriculum, challenging students’ impossibly narrow worldviews, blah, blah, blah. On the other hand: the threat of legal action, losing my job, being labeled a poisoner of children’s minds, blah, blah, blah.
By the time the parents walked into our assistant principal’s office, I had already lived the meeting a dozen times, and, like the scene where Tim Robbins walks into the record store in High Fidelity, each imaginary encounter’s outcome had been more and more extreme.
The real thing had its moments, but on the whole, it was much less interesting. Sure, the dad brought up the liberality of the supreme court, the lack of Americans’ respect for The Constitution, Geoffrey Chaucer, the horrors he’s experienced as a firefighter, and the attack on Christianity being levied by most U.S. colleges, all in fewer than 25 minutes, but other than that? Totally pedestrian. I know this sounds flip, but I think it’s important to note that the problems these parents had with my selection of The Handmaid’s Tale had as much to do with their larger perception of the “direction our culture is moving” as anything else. Before the meeting, I had convinced myself that I would have to resist the urge to lash out and ridicule the parents’ dim understanding of the way literature works, to mock them for not grasping the difference between exposure and promotion. And while I did ask myself often during the meeting, ‘Is what I’m about to say really going to change the way that either of us proceed from this point forward?,’ I never got the urge to raise my voice or jam a finger in anyone’s eye. Probably unsurprisingly, very little of what I thought to say was likely to make much of a difference. That would have annoyed me before the meeting, but afterward, it didn’t for some reason.
I think it’s because at some point during our tense (albeit polite) interaction, what I noticed most about these parents wasn’t their paranoia or anger, or even how wrong-headed I thought their approach to literature was. Instead, what stuck out to me most was how legitimately scared they were that their child had moved beyond their control. That is not to say they were controlling people, per se (I really have no way of knowing), but rather that at this moment, it hit home that influences totally unrelated to what goes on in their house would soon be rearing their heads in their child’s life one way or another, and wouldn’t stop for the rest of their lives or their child’s. It must be terrible to feel that loss of authority, to realize that for better or worse, the tools with which you’ve equipped your children, all their faith and intelligence and reasoning and confidence and ethics, are going to have to carry them forward, that the burden of their identity rests ever more on their shoulders, not yours.
Most parents probably internalize this truth well before their kids are 16. These hadn’t. I could tell how much anguish the realization had put them through. It wasn’t a show or a cry for attention as I might have thought. No, their feelings were legitimate, even if I couldn’t understand the source of those feelings. My two-and-a-half year-old will one day move beyond my reach, and have to contend for himself. On that day, I will reach out in futility, trying to draw him back to me, trying to protect him. I might make a fool of myself in the process. He might be eight or twelve or even sixteen when the truth settles, and it’s going to hurt.
So it would be easy for me to rant and rave and dismiss these parents’ concerns as antiquated and backwards. But I can’t. I can only empathize with them and hope that more parents take as active a role in what their children do and see and – yes – read. Because I’d rather have a tense conversation over the propriety of a novel than think that parents are simply too uninterested in their kids to bother asking about what they read in the first place. I’d rather they question my judgment than trust it blindly because that’s what I expect from myself as a parent. That we will almost undoubtedly reach different conclusions is unimportant.
How we respond to our children’s growth is critical. The slow dissolution of our autonomy will be painful and confusing, and we should not simply surrender it without question, but when the dissolution begins, we must trust ourselves as much as we trust our children, we must know when fight and when to let go.
From what I can tell, that’s a whole lot harder than it sounds.