Who Are We Really Protecting When We Keep Our Kids From ‘Dangerous’ Books?

It was Read Across America Week last week. Many schools celebrated with funky hats and pajama reading days and doing whatever they could to celebrate the importance of building a love of reading among our students. As an English teacher and a writer, I share the widely popular and uncontroversial view of my colleagues that there are few things that happen in school that are more impactful than cultivating a love of reading. That is, unless it’s the school where a new-teacher friend of mine works, where it’s apparently more important to “save” children from “dangerous” books than spark their curiosity and joy of learning. Really. The teacher, in her first year of teaching and terrified of losing her job, reached out to me this week in dismay. She’d been yelled at by her principal when he learned that she loaned a book of poems to a student (during Read Across America Week, no less). Not only that, she was told that he must now approve every future book she lends to a student. I offered support and swear words. She gets to keep her job (though she probably wants it a whole lot less than she did a week ago), but her principal is stepping in on a sacred and important student-teacher interaction. Many of us can likely look back fondly on a book a teacher lent us, just to us, because it would be a thing we liked or needed. https://educationpost.org/these-11-books-were-banned-but-you-should-read-them-anyway/ For students who are unchallenged or unrepresented by standard curricular books, these books can be essential, even when they are a little dangerous, when they have words or bodies or ideas that not everyone is ready to read about. My own classroom library is full of “dangerous” books. “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe,” “Daytripper,” “The Hate U Give,” “The New Jim Crow,” “A Good Time for the Truth,” “Kindred,” “Men Explain Things To Me,” “Between the World and Me.” Books that are gay, that are Black, that are unapologetically inclusive, unapologetically weird. Some are books that I would never assign an entire grade to read, but all are books any student should be able to read if they want to. Just because I love “dangerous” books doesn’t mean I’m not careful about which ones are in my room. I recently got a box of assorted books that included two about school shootings. Those went in a drawer, so as not to further traumatize kids who are actively worried about their own safety. And some teachers do show bad judgment. When I was a junior in high school, like nearly all boys who grow to be men with beards and flannels who like craft beer, I went through a Beat phase. Writers who I now see as a glowing example of what happens when you overly award mediocre White dudes seemed, at the time, to be the pinnacle of rebellious intellectualism. A teacher, aware of my interest, lent me a book from the creepy uncle of the Beat family, William Burroughs. So, yeah. My English teacher lent me “Naked Lunch.” She should not have done that. I was not ready to read that book. I’m not sure anyone is. But my new-teacher friend just got in trouble for lending a perfectly decent book to a student. To protect her anonymity and her job, I won’t name the book, but let’s just say this book was not “Naked Lunch.” It was a book of poems that acknowledged the existence of women and the existence of bodies and how those bodies can sometimes carry trauma with them. It wasn’t “Naked Lunch,” not close. But somehow the teacher’s principal found out, and she was admonished for lending out a book to a student, a 16-year-old student, a student who asked for the book. The principal and HR and the union all got involved because a teacher lent a book to a student who wanted to read a book, and the book made someone somewhere kind-of uncomfortable, and so the hammer came down. She worried about getting fired. She was warned she would be in much more trouble if it happened again. She cleared out her classroom library of any more “dangerous” books, just to be safe. She sent me a picture of her bookshelves, now empty except a couple textbooks and a dictionary. We have weird standards. We always have. An incredibly violent book is far more welcome in schools than one that suggests that people sometimes think about sex. Racist books are still required reading in districts that are uncomfortable with books about racism. The idea that this principal would berate rather than support this teacher is disappointing, but not overly surprising. Still, I struggle to believe that the job of any school administrator is to protect students from ideas or works of art. And I don’t know this dude, but the teacher is a new teacher, and young, and female, and I have only ever seen this sort of insane flexing from an administrator when at least two of those things were true. My daughter, in second grade and already, like a jerk, reading a few grade levels above everyone in her class, is already being lent books by her teacher. Getting to talk to her teacher about those books as she reads them is by far her favorite thing about school. I dearly wish that as she grows older, she continues to have the kinds of teachers who put books in her hands, who give her tough books, great books, dangerous books. Just, please, not “Naked Lunch.”
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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