Friday, October 26, 2007

"Burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes."

"Do you ever read any of the books you burn?"

He laughed. "That's against the law!"

"Oh. Of course." - from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

As the late Frank Zappa once said, "It's not getting a whole lot smarter out here..."

TUSCOLA, Texas (AP) Oct. 23 - A popular English teacher has been placed on paid leave — and faces possible criminal charges — after a student's parents complained to police that a ninth-grade class reading list contained a book about a murderer who has sex with his victims' bodies.

Kaleb Tierce, 25, is being investigated for allegedly distributing harmful material to a minor after the student selected Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy's Child of God off the list and read it.

Tierce, a third-year teacher and assistant football coach at Jim Ned High School, has not been arrested, but his case has caused an uproar in this West Texas town of 700 people. Last week, more than 120 parents and students crowded into a meeting where the school board voted to keep Tierce on paid leave.

Most parents say Tierce should be reinstated, regardless of whether the book is too graphic for teens.

"He's a great teacher and coach and motivates the kids like no one else can," said Chris Garcia, whose daughter was in one of Tierce's classes. "If you're trying to protect your kids from things in books, you may as well turn off the TV and video games. You try to protect them as much as you can, but these days kids are just exposed to so much."

Tierce, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, declined to comment when asked by The Associated Press about the allegations.

Some students and athletes have worn armbands to school and football games emblazoned with Tierce's initials, hiding them under clothing. Others said teens were meeting secretly to decide how to help the teacher they believe did nothing wrong.

"He was the only one who understood us," said Patrisha Ramirez, 15. "He would joke around. He would make English interesting, for once."

In Tuscola, south of Abilene, Child of God was on a list of titles compiled by all of the high school English teachers for a pre-Advanced Placement class.

Although administrators' approval was not required for the list, school officials have since removed the book because they deemed it inappropriate for ninth-graders.

The book tells the story of a town's outsider who is falsely accused of rape, then begins killing people. The character ends up living in a cave with his victims' decomposing bodies. The 1974 novel "plumbs the depths of human degradation," according to its back cover.

The parents of one ninth-grade student filed a police report on Oct. 1 with the Taylor County Sheriff's Office earlier this month. Before contacting law enforcement officials, they complained to the teacher and principal, said district Superintendent Kent LeFevre, who declined to reveal their discussions...

Parents have sought to ban various books, including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, as well as books on Cuba or gay penguins, according to the American Library Association. Last year, schools or public libraries received nearly 550 requests to remove books, the Chicago-based association said.

The entire article is here.

Now, this is an especially timely story for me. For one thing, my eighth grade students are currently reading Of Mice and Men, which is one of my favorite books to teach, and one which, when I survey my kids at the end of every year, turns out to be one of the most popular books on our reading list. We're right smack dab in the middle of it right now. It's a "classic" that kids can tackle, that doesn't talk down to them, that they find challenging but still a "good read." When we're done reading it, we watch the movie. It makes us all cry. It's a wonderful experience.

But the recent experiences we've had in our school district make us teachers worry now. We've started to look over our shoulders a bit. We talk in low tones about whether we should teach this or that, whether "they" will "come after us." It's distressing for agitators like me. In the town next door, a parent wants a book pulled and banned from the school library. The book, The Burn Journals, is a memoir of a young man - an eighth grader - who tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. It's a pretty rough book, I must admit, and it should only be read by mature youg readers. It is powerful stuff, but I will say that some of the sexual references are a bit gratuitous. There's not much of that, though. Most of it is gripping. This book had to be signed out with the parents' permission, however. The kid brought it home, the parents looked it over and didn't like what they saw, BUT, instead of simply refusing to allow their child to not read the book - you know, acting like parents - they decided to throw a public tantrum and get the title banned from the school shelves, so that no one can read it. Nuh-uh. In America, we're supposed to be against censorship. Supposedly.

Look, it's a scary world out there for kids, and for parents. It's especially scary for adolescents. I get that. I teach 'em, and I have two in my house at the moment. But in my house, I am the censor. And I am proud of it. I decide what movies come into the house and what gets played on the DVD player I paid for. I get veto power over what titles get downloaded from iTunes (it's my credit card that pays the bill, after all), and I get to delete what slips by the first time, because I actually torture my senses and listen to my kids' "music." I check out what my kids are reading, for school and for pleasure. Sometimes, Mrs. Agitator and I even - get this - read along. We've been doing this since our kids started reading. This - again - is called parenting.

The parents in our neighboring community acted correctly, up to a point. They investigated what their precious darling was reading, they didn't approve of it, and they denied the child the privilege of reading the book. That is their perogative. BUT they do not have the right to have the book pulled off the shelves of the library, to deny the other students in that school the right to have their parents make that same decision, or to decide otherwise. In other words, the right for them to parent their kids. The adults in the first case, however, are just plain wrong, and that includes the administrators here. They never should have suspended this teacher for a single second. I hope he has a lawyer, and I hope he has a strong teachers' union to protect him.

Yes, it is a truly scary world for children. I sympathize with all those parents who struggle every day to do battle with all the stuff out there that they and their kids are faced with. That's what teachers and school librarians and administrators are supposed to do. We love doing it. But when we are bullied, we need to fight back. That's what we tell the kids who are victimized by bullies to do: stand up, look them in the eye, and tell them "NO!"

It's time to start practicing what we preach.
"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.
Just get people to stop reading them."
-- Ray Bradbury --
(Strictly gratuitous Julie Christie photo from the movie version of Fahrenheit 451. You'll pardon me for this, I hope, as I have been madly in love with her since my own adolescence...)

PS: I have closed up shop for good at my own blog. I hope to continue to post here, when the spirit - and my outrage - moves me.