Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What the #$@%'s with the double standard?

I'm going through the Huff English blog archives. Two years ago she posted regarding a case in Washington (remarkably the news article is still up!) where a high-school English teacher was forced to step down after permitting a student to enter a poem which included an expletive in the school lit magazine. Since the magazine had already gone to press, all copies that could be found were shredded and the magazine was reprinted minus the 'offensive' poem. I've cited the poem below and the gist is that its about a girl's first sex experience.

The uproar over the poem began, unsurprisingly, with complaints from parents. Take this comment from parent Lorna Soules, for instance:
"This is not the kind of things we need; we need schools that support healthy living and healthy language, that take a moderate view and help parents raise kids," Soules said. "When I came upon that I said, 'Geez, this is too bad and unfortunate — somebody didn't do their job.' "
Interesting choice of words. We need schools that take a "moderate" view? What exactly does the word "moderate" mean in this context? Schools that don't fight the status quo? In the past, taking a "moderate" stance would have meant anything from denying women access to higher education or resisting desegregation in public schools. A moderate stance does not automatically equal a correct stance or a fair or a just one. In fact, this could lead to an entirely new tirade on my part so I'm going to move on for now to what I originally wanted to post about.

What I wanted to address is an apparent double standard. For Huff Teacher writes that schools have an established right to control what is printed in their publications (as per the American Supreme Court).

Alright, that makes sense.

However, does it make any sense that while curbing student expression by suppressing the usage of profanity in student writing, schools are simultaneously teaching students using literature that contains it?

Interestingly, Huff Teacher believes that it does. In her opinion the school was entirely within its right to censor the poem and yet at the same time she strongly feels that "students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature."

So basically, its okay to censor students writing, but not their reading? When it comes to specifically school printed publications schools should be free to censor, while they simultaneously provide students with profanity-laden reading material that falls under the approved heading of "literature"?

Cases like these make me terrified of getting in trouble myself some day. I mean, this was an established teacher who had been in the profession for over 35 years who was forced to resign as magazine editor due to - so it would seem - a single misstep.

Does it make sense that such an experienced teacher would purposely go against school rules by printing the poem? It seems unlikely. Which leads me to believe that there were no specific rules regarding the lit magazine's boundaries on student writing! In fact the Seattle Times article specifically mentions that the school district had never taken action in the past when the magazine had previously contained profanities. So evidently the teacher simply made a judgment call based on past experience - that seems entirely reasonable to me. But instead of a discussion subsequently taking place on the rightness or wrongness of his decision, the school caved in and got rid of him when a few parents flipped out and demanded disciplinary action.

What was this really about?

Based on the evidence, it was not about this teacher's worthiness or ability. Jill from Feministe attended the high-school and says that Mr. Kelly was one of Shorewood's "most well-known and well-liked teachers." And the Student Press Law Center has a follow-up article stating that after a grievance hearing Mr. Kelly was subsequently restored to his former position as magazine adviser.

Rather then being a matter of a teacher's failure to use common sense as Mrs. Huff believes, I see it as being about parents' fear and a school which cowardly and unreasonably caved in to that fear instead of standing up for their own employee or even taking the time to address the complaints after some contemplation and conference.

Why did this poem incite such a reaction from parents in the first place?

Read it and deduce what you will....

My first fuck

sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn't pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

by Zoya Raskina

I can understand censoring student writing in extreme cases - like instances of hate speech, statements of threatened harm to self or others - but in this case it seems like an overreaction. Censorship should be a last resort and not something to be taken lightly. In this case, the profanity was chosen to perfectly fit the tone of the poem. When I read the body of the poem and then compare the title, I can think of no other word more appropriate. The poet is talking about sex without meaning, without love, the experience of simply being used and discarded.

Which leads me to believe that what is really disturbing about the poem to parents, to adults in general perhaps, is not the usage of the "f word" but rather the idea that a young girl has possibly already experienced sex in such a harsh way.

I'm curious about Zoya -- where is she now? does she still write? -- and I'm impressed with her father's tempered reaction to the poem:
Her father, Vladimir Raskin, thinks the poem raises a genuine issue. "She is a grown-up person," he said. "I told her my opinion that the poem is good, the title is bad." "It's poetry; some people like it, some people don't," he added. "The problem discussed in the poem is actually relevant and good."
IMAGE: "Open Book" by Nancy R. Cohen


Dana Huff said...

The expletive was in the poem when it was printed. It could not be printed in the newspaper I quoted. That's what expletive deleted means. It means it was there and had to be excised to meet print standards.

Also, if you look at the legal precedents I quoted, it becomes clear that whether we like it or not, the school did act within its rights.

I do think reading and writing are different because when people go after books, they try to prevent everyone from having access to them rather than working with other means of accommodation available. I don't think this girl was denied her right to publication.

Sometimes teaching is a battle, and I think it's smart to fight the right ones.

Elliot said...

Wait, he didn't actually lose his job as a teacher... and they did resinstate him as adviser, right?

Well, it does remind me a little of that line from Apocalypse Now: "We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!"

Anactoria said...

Ah! I misread and thought the poem printed minus the actual expletive! I'll have to correct what I wrote. Thanks for pointing that out!

As I stated in the post, I'm not debating the legal precedents or saying that the school didn't have the right to do what they did, but I am questioning the correctness of their decision to exercise their right in this case. Just because they have the right doesn't mean its beyond challenge or criticism.

If someone bothers to wage a battle at all, its evidently one they believe is worth fighting. But I can see what you mean about how going after books could be even more disturbing.

Elliot - no, you're right, he didn't lose his job as a teacher, just his position as the magazine adviser. Originally I'd thought that was his actual main job, but it seems he was both a regular teacher as well as adviser.

The thing is, the article states that previously poems with expletives had gone to print and there had been no such fuss over them.

So the issue of the expletive seems to have been almost like a red-herring; the real issue was the poem's content which the school believed "was not age-appropriate."

Elliot, are you comparing public schools to military training camps? :P

Dana Huff said...

I think you are probably right that it wasn't really the word choice so much as the subject matter. I have a ninth grader, and I have to admit I'd freak out if she wrote something like that (or one of her friends did). No, we don't like to think of our children, especially when we think of them as too young, having sex.