Censorship is nothing new. By creating morals, we have to live with the things that challenge our morals. The trouble is, everyone has a different threshold of morality and most people don’t understand this which is a problem when the person is a parent. The trouble is that parents have a variety of moral thresholds. Consequently, schools are subject to parents “asking” about a book assigned. These parents wonder how we can teach the material that we teach and wonder how the material matches the school’s mission statement. Now, administrators look at you: Well, why are you teaching this kind of material? Now, you look at yourself: Well, why am I teaching this kind of material? But teachers know the importance of challenging material. If we are challenged, we are thinking. If we are thinking, we are growing.
So when I read in the local paper and saw a letter to the editor that reads “Warning: Curriculum not appropriate for children”, I couldn’t help but look into the article. In it, a parent starts off with “our job as parents is…” and words like “protect” and “best interests” come up. The parent then talks about the class and a book choice including Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. A student opens up the book and finds a sketch of a naked woman with a poem between her spread legs. When the student approached the teacher, the teacher said she thought the students were mature enough to handle this material. What follows in the letter includes words like “vulgar” and “gut wrenching” followed with questions regarding this book and the school’s mission statement. The letter ends with a call to action from the leaders in the school along with a final rallying cry for parents to protect (there’s that word again) their kids.
I read this article in my parent’s living room. The article started quite the conversation between my grandmother (born 1938), my mother (born 1960) and me (1991). My grandmother was appalled at a teacher bringing such material into the classroom. My mother was more sympathetic and asked how sexual material was any different than the porn these teenagers no doubt look up on the Internet. I said how material like this may be helpful because I have had students who have been sexually assaulted/abused. We went around and around, not making many strong conclusions. I did admit that the material might be a bit mature for an 8th grade class, but, again, kids are growing up quickly so the material may not be as taboo as previously believed. I also stated that I wished there were more details — were the kids forced to read this? Were there multiple options and this one was merely one of them? Again, no real conclusion, but we did have a nice conversation.
I get it. I’m now a parent and will have to deal with issues of my daughter being exposed to things she may not be ready for or things I find inappropriate. But, my empathy does not extend so far that I think we should shelter students from content within schools. Teachers are there to guide students through the material, especially difficult material. And, difficult material is relative to everyone.
Everyone having their own standard of morality is good for diversity, but can be a challenge when discussing school curriculum. Parents want to protect their children and that’s fair — any parent wants their child safe. But at what cost? If we truly love someone, is it right to shelter them? Or, do we instead take our child’s hand and walk with them? We — both parents and teachers — are in a position of authority — students come to us when they need guidance. Let’s — teachers and parents — work together and guide them through the issue instead of around the issue. One day they will leave and we have to ask: are they prepared for this new stage because we sheltered them, or because we guided them?
Anthony “Skip” Olson teaches 8th and 10th grade English at Manson Northwest Webster in Manson, Iowa. He has been teaching since the fall of 2015.