California English Journal
If there is any doubt about whether censorship issues still demand our attention, one only needs to look above the fold of the May 1999 issue of The Council Chronicle where I first encountered the California English call for manuscripts about censorship issues.In the article, High Court Refuses to Hear Case of Fired English and Journalism Teacher, I discovered that Cecilia Lacks, who allowed her students to write drama exercises with dialogue natural to the characters they created and subjects that reflected the students own experiences and concerns (NCTE, 1999, p. 14), had exhausted all of her legal efforts to be reinstated to her original teaching position.As I struggled to stifle my indignation, I realized that, like the administration at Lacks school, I have been guilty of censorship myself when I have selected literature for my students.Recently, I replaced the traditional choice of Charles Dickens Great Expectations with Ernest Gaines A Gathering of Old Men.I could rationalize my choice.I wanted to introduce an African-American author into a curriculum that lacked one.I had not had much success the last time I had taught the Dickens novel.I did not want to believe that I had censored literature.I wanted to believe that I had selected literature.Is there a real difference?
No one wants to admit that he or she is a censor.Instead, people claim that they are protecting children, or they are defending against blasphemy, or defending family values (Miner, 1998, p. 4).In order to identify who is trying to censor materials and why, we must first understand what censorship is.The American Association of School Administrators defines it as the removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials of images, ideas, and information on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor (ibid).The easy assumption is that the conservative and sometimes religious right is responsible for all of the censorship efforts.They are, in fact, responsible for a great deal of them, and they generally object for one of three main reasons (McClure, 1995):
1. Issues of Satanism, Witchcraft,
and anti-Christian themes
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), R.L. Stines Goosebumps series was the most frequently challenged set of books in 1997 (ACLU, 1997).Stines childrens horror novels have aroused a tremendous amount of opposition because they are said to contain satanic symbols, promote disrespect for adults and encourage children to imagine disfigured bodies, lurking menaces and, well, vomit (Tabor, 1997, p. A16).Margot Byron, who in 1997 unsuccessfully pursued her challenge of the series to the Anoka-Hennepin (MN) district level, fears that the books make children who read them paranoid and insecure (Henry, 1997, p. 7D).Of the seven challenges to the series that the People for the American Way has identified, only one has resulted in two of Stines books being removed from a school library (ibid).
After the Goosebumps series, four of the eight books remaining on the ACLUs Most Frequently Banned or Challenged Books of 1997 are contested because of their graphic and profane language.Katherine Patersons Newberry Award-winning book Bridge to Terebithia (#7) will no longer be read in the Burleson School District in Texas, because a new Burleson school district policy stops teachers from assigning literature containing profanity to elementary and middle school students (Weissenstein, 1997, p. 1).James and Christopher Colliers My Brother Sam is Dead (#9) is also not going to be taught in the Burleson district unless they use the Scholastic version.When Scholastic, who also publishes the Goosebumps series, put out its version of My Brother Sam is Dead, they removed a goddamn and a bastard from a crucial scene without consulting the authors (Collier, 1998).Both Paterson and the Colliers defend their use of profane language by saying it helps give their work greater authenticity.Christopher Collier argues that you cant just have soldiers in battle saying, Gull ding it, Ive been hit or Im shot, good gracious.Readers know that is not what they said; the story would lose credibility and we would lose readers (1998, p. 91).
Of the nine books on the ACLUs list, five are frequently challenged or banned because of their sexual content.Maya Angelous I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which is restricted to high schools in Metropolitan-Davidson County (TN) school district (Swink, 1998), often draws the attention of censors because of her account of the rape she suffered as a child.In Texas, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddys Roommate, which are books about children with homosexual parents, have generated a great deal of controversy.When a local pastor paid for the books rather than return them, news coverage of his action prompted donations of and demands for the books (Associated Press, 1998).More recently, the ACLU in Wisconsin has contested the removal of four gay-themed books from public school libraries in the Barron Area School District (ACLU, 1999, p. 1).
Censorship would be a much simpler issue if one could simply blame the religious and conservative right, but even Rush Limbaugh has had one of his books censored (Ruff, 1997).Violet Harris typifies the censorship efforts of the political left by objecting to the stereotypes in The Indian in the Cupboard and The Five Chinese Brothers (1995).The centerpiece of this less commonly discussed form of censorship and the ACLUs second-most challenged book of 1997 is Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twains classic has a long history of opposition.When it was first published in 1885, it was banned and condemned across the country.It was called rough, coarse and inelegant and unsuitable for intelligent, respectable people.There were complaints that the character of Jim was too heroic for a slave (ACLU, 1997, p. 1).Ironically, the book, which was once considered to be too kind to blacks is now often considered to be racist.It is challenged by the political left for its depiction of the character of Jim as a gullible, simple-minded, and superstitious figure and the books frequent use of the word nigger (McClure, 1995, p. 10).The private National Cathedral School in Washington D.C. recently reignited the debate when they moved the book from the list of required reading for sophomores to elective courses for juniors and seniors (Strauss, 1995, A1).
Teachers, faced with challenges from all sides, often engage in the practice of self-censorship.They do not want to deal with the prospect of defending a potentially controversial text, both because it is exhausting and because of the consequences they may face for using it.I have encountered challenges from parents about selections ranging from Robert Cormiers The Chocolate War to Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal.Rather than choosing novels that address controversial and very probably engaging topics, teachers choose safe and neutral ones.But as censorship activity increases, not only with literature, but also creative writing, class discussions, and the Internet, teachers should not simply give in.They should not, as Cecilia Lacks fears, become the teacher who could be teaching, but is too afraid to do it (NCTE, 1999, p. 14).Instead, they should become more aware of the legal background and the relevant procedures which will afford them greater flexibility and protection when they choose their texts.
Various lower courts initially responded to this issue differently.Both the Second (Presidents Council, District 25 v Community School Board 25, New York City, 1972) and the Seventh (Zykan v Warsaw Community School Corporation, Indiana, 1980) Circuit Courts reinforced the school districts efforts to remove books from the curriculum and the library as long as they were not seeking to impose one point of view on the students.On the other hand, the 6th Circuit Court (Minarcini v Strongsville (Ohio) City School District, 1976) and a District Court in Massachusetts (Right to Read Defense Committee v School Committee of the City of Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1978) restricted the school districts discretion to the selection and purchase of books, not the removal of them (Brooks, 1996).
In Board of Education, Island Trees (New York) Union Free School District v Pico, the Supreme Court agreed with the 6th Circuit Court and the Massachusetts District Court.Several books, like Eldridge Cleavers Soul on Ice and Bernard Malamuds The Fixer, were removed from school libraries because of objections from a conservative group of parents called the New York United.In a narrow vote that suggests the divided nature of the Supreme Court and therefore did not send a very strong message, the Supreme Court said that school board members may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books. (Miner, 1998, p. 7)Justice Brennan wrote the lead opinion and echoed Justice Tauros opinion in the Right to Read case.He said that students need access to the marketplace of ideas in order to be prepared to become an active citizen and that local school boards may not remove books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion (ALA, 1999, p. 5).he did, however, acknowledge that school boards have significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries. (ibid)The discretion that Brennan allowed formed the foundation for future efforts at censorship, as in Hazelwood School District v Kuhlmeier, which affirmed the rights of schools to censor materials as long as they can demonstrate a legitimate pedagogical purpose for doing so.After Hazelwood, students no longer had access to the range and diversity of ideas that Brennan thought were necessary for them to become good citizens (ibid).Based on this legal background, what does and should happen when a teacher wants to use a controversial selection?
A second-year sophomore English teacher in a suburban middle class community wanted to select a novel for her class, some of whom were reluctant readers. (Pooler & Perry, 1997)She chose Stephen Kings Carrie because of Kings use of literary conventions, his knack for raising important questions, and because she was confident that the students would be engaged by its topic.She was aware that Kings novels are frequently challenged, so she developed a written rationale for her use of the book, consulted with her department head, followed the guidelines of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) / International Reading Association Joint Task Force on Intellectual Freedom, met with the principal, and prepared an alternative reading assignment.It seems as if this teacher was well-prepared for any challenges.
Not surprisingly, a parent spoke to the chair of the school board and objected to the book on the grounds that it contains offensive language, and describes life situations that. . .are inappropriate for adolescents (Pooler & Perry, 1997, p. 182).At a conference, the parent agreed to the alternative selection. In the meantime, however, some community members, who heard about the issue from the parent who had initially complained, decided to pursue the matter further and seek to have Carrie removed from the curriculum.At first, the school board declined to remove it because their process for dealing with challenged materials had been followed properly.The community group persisted and, at the next meeting, persuaded the school board to remove it.
What could this teacher, who did more than most, have done to prevent this outcome?In addition to developing a rationale (which included an alternative assignment), using her personal and professional resources, and having a conference with the parent, she might have sought help from King himself, who is active in this issue, and she could have written to his publisher.Some publishers will prepare a packet of reviews discussing the books educational merit and information about past efforts to censor it.Prior to the confrontation, the teacher also could have attempted to develop a relationship with the parents of her students to elicit their support for the idea of getting students to read.She might have even solicited some parental input about reading selections.In the end, however, the teacher must make the choice.
Some parents may wonder why when they challenge a reading selection, they are perceived as censoring whereas teachers who choose a book are thought to be selecting.The NCTE distinguishes between censorship and selection using a set of five criteria.Basically, in the NCTEs terms, censorship is based on efforts to indoctrinate students; selection is based on expanding the students marketplace of ideas (McClure, 1995).But the question remains: what rights do parents have to determine what their children will read?
With prompting from the Religious Right, Congress recently considered the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act.It states that no form of government shall interfere or usurp the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child of the parent (American Library Association, 1997, p. 1).Facing opposition from the American Library Association, the Office of Intellectual Freedom, and the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, the Act did not pass (ibid).If it had passed, enforcement may have required steps similar to those outlined in a version of the bill that the Massachusetts legislature considered. It would have burdened teachers with the requirement to collect permission slips every time they wanted to have a discussion about a potentially controversial topic (Lynn, 1996).
So a teacher prepares rationale for book and parent may challenge it.They can resolve it by using an alternative assignmentor the pursue further to try have removed from curriculum.While all of this maneuvering is taking place what right reader student claim reading material?According landmark Tinker v Des Moines Independent School District case, students may not be confined to the expression of those ideas that are officially approved (McClure, 1995, p. 23).
Does this mean that a student of any age should read whatever he wants and that a parents wishes should be ignored?It is, I think, perfectly appropriate for a parent to challenge a book on behalf of her child and to request an alternative assignment.A teacher should be prepared to provide an alternative.As an English teacher, I have no hesitation about restricting the use of the Goosebumps series for independent reading projects in my classroom.My legitimate pedagogical purpose for censoring them is the fact that Stine himself admits that they do not have much literary value (Tabor, 1997).
But if a parent, teacher, or community group tries to prevent all students from reading a certain selection, then we are faced with a kind of censorship that cannot be tolerated.If we keep controversial ideas from our students, we deny them the opportunity to develop the kind of critical thinking skills that our country needs from its citizens.As Salman Rushdie, who has some personal experience with censorship, explains:
The most insidious effect of censorship is that, in the end, it can deaden the imagination of people.Where there is no debate, it is hard to go on remembering every day, that there is a suppressed side to every argument.It becomes almost impossible to conceive of what the suppressed things might be.(Allen, 1997, p. 163)
About the Author:
At LA Youth, the Los Angeles newspaper by and about teens, the best articles have always been the "dangerous" ones. They are the ones that dare to tell the truth, even when it might upset people.
In the 10 years I have edited LA Youth, concerned administrators and teachers have often commented about articles in the newspaper. Some said: "It's not a nice newspaper." "My kids can't handle that stuff." "I look through it and clip out the parts I want to show my students." Others said: "It's the only thing my kids will read." "Keep up the good work." "LA Youth addresses the real problems my students are going through." Sexual experiences, homosexuality, illegal immigration, abortion, tagging, school problems--all of these topics have faced forms of censorship in the 400 high schools where we distribute our publication. I'm proud of these pieces, and glad that LA Youth is an independent publication that can take on such issues.
I know that LA Youth challenges the teachers who distribute it and the teens who read it. However, we don't set out to create conflict. We just direct our reporters to write from the heart, as honestly as they can, and to delve into the dangerous material without fearing what people may think.
By "dangerous material" I'm not necessarily referring to the issues that have been problematic for LA Youth. Danger has nothing to do with outside controversy. Danger confronts all writers who are writing about something important to themselves. Dangerous is the place that beckons every writer, the scary place where language begins to fall apart, feelings are mixed up and things stop making sense. This type of dangerous material is the stuff that readers are touched by and remember, even years later.
When students write about topics they have chosen, they learn how to write because they crave the connection with their audience, as well as with themselves; with their own experience. The American painter Robert Henri wrote in The Art Spirit, "When a man is full up with what he is talking about he handles such language as he has with a mastery unusual to him, and it is at such times that he learns language."
What does it mean to be "full up"? How do you give young writers the tools to achieve it? These are questions worth grappling with.
Our students need guidance before they can even begin to write. First, they need to be shown that what they observe and feel and experience is worth writing about. Reading LA Youth itself is a good start, because the writers read the work of others their own age. That begins to give them permission to try out their ideas. For example, one student at LA Youth wrote an article called "Gay Thoughts" about his occasional fantasies about other guys, though he considered himself to be straight. Several boys joined LA Youth because they were impressed by that writer's courage.
One boy went on to write a hilarious piece about nudism. He said it was the only topic he could think of that would take as much courage as "Gay Thoughts." Having attended a Baptist school, he started his article with a quote from Genesis about Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness. His first draft was a treatise stating that nudity was not necessarily sinful or sexual. He left out the dangerous part--his visit to a nudist camp, when he actually got naked and interviewed other naked people. He didn't want to put it in--too embarrassing. Yet it was the part of his article that people will remember. In subsequent drafts, here's how he described getting ready: "
I went to my room, undressed and looked at myself in the mirror. I said to myself, Well, this will have to do.
"I apprehensively opened the door and stepped outside. The wind was blowing over me in places where it doesn't usually go." How many readers would be able to stop reading at that point? Doesn't he have us hooked? He goes on to describe how he got more comfortable being naked. Towards the end of his article, he comments, "I thought, it's just a butt. Why is that such a big deal? You have a butt, don't you?"
Another important tool that we use to educate LA Youth writers is our weekly teen staff discussions. At these meetings, as we discuss ideas, the writers begin to realize that they are writing not for me, but for each other and especially for themselves. They begin to think about the special needs of a teen audience. They begin to analyze the rhetorical strategies that they--and other youth--might respond to.
Usually teens will come up with a great story idea after a few staff meetings. Then they need help refining their ideas to hone in on the most interesting part. I call this "returning to the impetus." Writers desperately need guidance at this point because they will instinctively veer away from the dangerous part of the story, and try to get to safer ground. They have to be forced to get back to the core of the story, the thing that got them excited in the first place.
One student interviewed a disabled classmate. He admired how she kept up a regular class load and aspired to be an actress, despite her cerebral palsy. But he didn't want to ask her questions like, "How have other people reacted to your disability? Have people ever said mean things?" He was afraid of being impolite. As a result, the story felt flat. It showed her triumphs without revealing how much she had overcome to get there. After a second interview, he came up with this material:
"In her Latino neighborhood, many people believed that a physically deformed child is born as punishment for its ancestors' sins. As a result, her father's family rejected her. Her aunt calls her a human earthquake.
"When Nelly was first born and was taken to the supermarket by her mother, people followed them in the aisles and called out 'F--in' sinner.'"
"Nelly recalled how, when she was at the pool in elementary school, a mother called her little boy away, saying, "Don't go near her. She's diseased. She's not like you."
This material gives much more impact to Nelly's quote, "People I admire are those who are going against all odds..."
Another student interviewed a man with AIDS. With encouragement, she asked him about his funeral plans.She wrote: "When my editor told me to ask him about his funeral plans, I felt scared. It made me realize that maybe tomorrow, Michael won't be living. But then I realized that we're all going to dieit doesn't matter if you have AIDS or notso I felt more comfortable asking him about it. Michael has already planned his funeral: he is taping a video with a message to all his family members and friends."
These writers' articles succeeded because they were willing to move toward the danger, rather than away from it.
Writers also need help in developing their voices, finding the language that they use naturally when they speak but which somehow doesn't sound fancy enough when they write it down. Left to their own devices, they turn to the main model they have learned--the English essay. This model recently led a movie reviewer to state that a movie "propels itself by themes and characters and not by plot."
At LA Youth, we encourage writers to master English essay writing, but also to become sensitive to how teen readers might respond to such English-essayese. After working with Associate Editor Nancy Bresson Martinez, here's what happened to our movie reviewer's paragraph:
(Draft) "American Beauty propels itself by themes and characters and not by plot. Some of the movie's themes are a little too familiar, but most of them work marvelously well. For example, by now most people know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Considering that a lot of them don't really care and are still obsessed with physical features, it's not so bad that the script wants to reiterate this cliche once again. I liked the film's suggestions that beauty can be found everywhere if we just open our eyes. Ball's script seems to be saying that we're just so involved with our petty problems we don't take the time to notice the beauty around us."
(Rewrite) "American Beauty's themes are a little too familiar, but most of them work marvelously well. I liked the film's suggestions that beauty can be found everywhere if we just open our eyes. Ball's script seems to be saying that we're just so involved with our petty problems we don't take the time to notice the beauty around us."
Another writer described how she had been discriminated against as an Asian. Her first draft told about some boys who called her "China" and tried to spit on her, and a boy who threw a water balloon at her. Her second draft discussed boys who threw rocks at her. This became the central anecdote in her piece. Here's how she described the incident:
(Draft) "The local swimming pool was a couple of blocks from my house. It was one of those last summer days that felt empty and quiet. My sisters and I wanted to hangout at the pool so we decided to take our bags of swim provision and left. On the way there, right across from the side of a middle school, two young boys were playing in front of their beige-colored apartment. As we walked by it, they stopped what they were doing and came to the front of their gate to watch us. They began throwing racial slurs at us. "Chinas... go back to where you came from! &*^*%&^&!!" At that time, I couldn't say I didn't feel anything. I was there with my sisters. I stood there with my sisters. I just didn't feel anything--I didn't feel insulted or marred by their treatment--until my sister got hurt when she stood up for herself. She stood up for us, for what we are and aren't. My sister's nose was bleeding from the rocks those boys had thrown at us. They had picked up the rocks around them when she had picked up on responding them back. She wasn't cussing at them, nor backfiring racial slurs at them. She only gave them reasons which they didn't understand, no doubt.The kids ran back to their houses when they realized that there were bright scarlet blood running from her. They had scrambled away so quickly like kids. They were kids. I was a kid, too. I didn't do anything. I just couldn't get myself to do anything but yelled one stupidest phrase, "See what you have done!"
(Rewrite) "It was one of those late summer days that felt empty and quiet. I had just finished seventh grade that year. My two sisters and I wanted to hang out at the pool near our house so we took our bags of swim gear and left.
"On the way there, right across from the side of a middle school, two young boys were playing in front of their beige-colored apartment. As we walked by it, they stopped what they were doing and came to the front of their gate to watch us. They began throwing racial slurs at us for no particular reason.
" 'Chinas... go back to where you came from! &*^*%&^&!!' At first, I was too shocked to really feel anything or recognize that I was being insulted. This was such a trite comment that had been buzzing around me, but never directly at me. I stood there quietly with my sisters, not wanted to make a big deal. But my older sister spoke up, her patience tried.
" 'Why are you saying this?' she asked, trying to reason with them. But they kept on cussing at her as if she didn't exist.
"One boy picked up a rock, and the other followed. They started throwing one after the other, but somehow none hit me. I held my towel as a shield. When I heard my sister gasp, I turned around and saw blood pouring from her nose.
"The kids scrambled back to their houses when they realized she was bleeding. As they ran away, I only yelled one stupid phrase, 'See what you have done!' "
With the help of Associate Editor Tram Nguyen, this writer honed in on the "dangerous material." In order to do so, she had to look deep within herself, confront her pain and find simple words for complicated things.
You can see why she might have been reluctant to include this story in her first draft. But what a loss if these words had never been written! That's why teens should read and write "dangerous material"--because it matters.
Libby Hartigan is Managing Editor of LA Youth, the newspaper by and about Los Angeles teens, which distributes 100,000 copies five times a year to high schools and libraries in Los Angeles County. Raised in Connecticut, she earned a B.A. in comparative literature from Brown University and worked as a features reporter for the Daily News of Los Angeles before beginning to work at LA Youth.To learn more about LA Youth, see our web site at www.layouth.com.
This issue of California English is dedicated to students right to read. Often when individuals object to books like Catcher in the Rye or The Color Purple it is on the basis of particular lines or expressions that some find offensive. The more our students understand character motivation, historical context, and diction at the service of tone, the better they will be able to articulate to anyone intent upon protecting them from such books why the author chose to employ this language. I believe that strong, thoughtful students are one of the best defenses against censorship.
Rather than avoiding particular books to stave off the headache and heartache of a challenge, teachers should be pro-active in developing clear rationales for the literature they teach. Fortunately much of the work has been done for us. The National Council of Teachers of English in partnership with the International Reading Association has created a compact disc called Rationales for Challenged Books. The CD-ROM was written primarily for middle and high school teachers and includes over 200 rationales.
I always encourage new teachers to read through the NCTE/IRA rationales before they begin teaching Black Boy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Often understanding why someone might object to a piece of literature helps a teacher construct her own personal rationale for teaching a particular book. Most challenges begin with a phone call from a parent. If the teacher who responds to that call can articulate a thoughtful explanation of why the book is being studied and then offer the child alternate selections, the problem is often diffused.
Another excellent resource for teachers is the summer 1997 issue of the journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, Statement, which focuses on rationales for challenged materials. Copies are available from NCTE. In her introduction, editor Louanne Reid (1997) explains that: Paradoxically, it may take a village to raise a child, but it seems to take only one complaint to raze a curriculum. Reports from organizations such as People for the American Way and the American Library Association demonstrate that challenges to teaching materials and methods are increasingand are increasingly successful. Members of the Executive Committee of the Colorado Language Arts Society join thousands of others who are concerned about encroachments on the freedom of expression, the students right to read, and intellectual freedom.
The CLAS Executive Committee formulated a position statement regarding academic freedom that I believe can serve as a model for any school district in this country. For that reason, I have included it below in its entirety. On Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility
The Colorado Language Arts Society declares that society is best served by an education system that promotes the robust exchange of ideas. The freedom to study, to inquire, and to explore new ideas is fundamental to a healthy education.
Experience has shown that there are a number of things that educators can do to create the best educational experiences for their students, to maintain a healthy relationship with the school community, and to minimize the extent of any controversies over materials used for instruction.
The Colorado Language Arts Society affirms that professional educators should use their expertise to select instructional materials and experiences that they believe will advance the education goals they have identified for their students. CLAS also affirms the joint statement of NCTE and IRA that states, All students in public school classrooms have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others. Denial or restriction of this right is an infringement of intellectual freedom.
Educators have a unique influence on their students. Thus, CLAS also affirms that with academic freedom come the following responsibilities: Educators have a responsibility to take into account the age, maturity, and readiness of their students as they select instructional materials.
Educators have a responsibility to learn about and follow their districts policies and procedures in selecting and using educational materials.
Educators have a responsibility to become aware of and understand the diverse standards and values of their communities.
Educators have a responsibility to develop education plans and rationales for the use of specific classroom materials, including nonprint, print, and multi-media materials, exercises, and assignments (1996)
Every teacher should expect, at some time in his or her career, to face a textbook challenge. While the circumstances of the challenge and the nature of the objections may be outside a teachers control, there is much we can do to defend our students right to read and our own right to teach. My best advice is not to go it alone. Help is always available from the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association.
California English welcomes reader response. Please address all mailed correspondence to 15332 Antioch Street #539, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now think, did that scare you off or entice you into this next line? Censorship proponents would have you believe that a warning label will prevent unprepared eyes from looking, too-innocent ears from listening, too malleable minds from feeling pernicious influences. Most of us who question the right of the censor are mindful, however, that the "forbidden fruit" has a nearly fatal magnetism to lure us into that first taste, just to see what it's like. And so, quite perversely, the more active and acknowledged the attempt to censor, the greater the chance that it can become a form of advertising. Or, as with the well-publicized attacks on books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the removal from one library inspires a public questioning that can strengthen the resolve and resistance of a broad general public.
The problem really lies in the far more pervasive, and highly insidious, form of censorship: the individual decision to avoid trouble by not speaking up, by buckling to the veiled threat and not assigning or buying what might be questioned. After all, we're all busy, busy beyond any rational expectation of a seemingly human standard, with increasing class loads, greater numbers of problem students, constantly heavier stress on more outside testing, outright stupidity that assumes every student can be "above" average on percentile rankings. All those pressures lead automatically to more committees to design better curriculum practices and more meetings, or paperwork, to respond to everyone else's demands on our time, energy, and hopes. Therefore, though as I write this on Veteran's Day, a day honoring the sacrifices so many before us have made to give us the chance to experience freedom, to choose our own way and our own ideas, I recognize with trepidation that even I am feeling that there are important things I can't take on because they will demand too much "trouble" and time. At the same moment, I know that others are involved with me, and I am grateful that they engage in the battles with and for me.
I am grateful, to be specific, that CATE has individuals like the 30 members of the CATE Board willing to invest over eight full days a year to consider ways to improve the lots of English/Language Arts teachers in the classroom, plan local events, react to legislation, organize essay contests, honor excellence in local teachers and organizations, and yet still find time to volunteer, in addition, to serve on state committees. Currently, among others, we have Aaron Spain working with CDE on our behalf to examine how tests and standards correlate; and Carol Jago and Carole LeCren serving on the CDE committee to revise and update the "Recommended Reading" lists. To give the major accolade he deserves, we also laud Jim Burke for the countless hours and broad effect he has had though his creation of CATENet; the conversations and arguments he has fostered via that creation has led to his winning of the NCTE/SLATE Intellectual Freedom Award for this year.
The question is, who will the next leaders in this good fight be? The insidious censor inside all of us wants to "avoid trouble," and many of the local councils are finding it nearly impossible to have even informational and fun events that will bring together in one place and time more than a handful of people. (Check yourself: did you attend that last event CATE advertised locally? Were you at that bookstore gathering in San Diego; the luncheon in Los Angeles; the wine-tasting in San Francisco; the author and dinner in Sacramento; the workshop in Yosemite?) In our pressurized, volatile world, we need more people who will find time for the fun event and also gird up their strength to expose to the light those that would otherwise remove by stealth or tactically wear us out individually.
The Revolutionary War slogan, "United we stand; divided we fall!" is as true as ever. Don't let the outside censors and pressures, or the inside comfort-seeking voice, prevent you from seeing that YOU, personally, are needed. Come to the convention in Sacramento in February. Rather than be a passive wait-and-see type, who might participate if it's convenient, become an active planner of events that will meet your needs. Keep informed; speak out; mentor others into CATE membership; and run for office.
Remember: NOT acting could
be injurious to your mental and/or professional health. So, as we enter
the doorway of the new millennium, become one of the lights to expose
the rocks on the path. Contact any of us on the CATE Board (via either
the net <cateweb.org> or the telephone <1-800-303-CATE>)
with your concerns, your suggestions, and your willingness to take
on an active role.