Watch your f—in’ language

It’s banned books week! I love banned books week! No, seriously, I do, and I think it’s because when I look at the ALA’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics,” I see a number of books that I either read for English class or that are taught by me or a colleague. And just because I love pumping my own ego here, I’ll run off a quick list:

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (read it in high school; taught in 11th grade)
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (read it in high school; taught in 11th grade)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (was taught in honors 11 in my h.s.; I read it a few years ago)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (read it in high school; taught in 9th grade)
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (read it in high school; taught in 12th grade)
  • 1984, by George Orwell (read it in college; taught in 12th grade)
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (read it in high school; taught in 11th grade)
  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (taught in the AP course of the first school where I taught)
  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell (read it in high school; taught in 12th grade)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (on 11th grade curriculum of school where I first taught)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey (read it in high school)
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (read it in 7th grade)
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (while not on the curriculum, popular among my students)
  • The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (on AP curriculum of school where I first taught; however, the department was forced to put a sticker over the cover of the Penguin edition because it featured an impressionist’s painting of a half-naked woman)
  • The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (not taught, but a copy was in my high school library)
  • A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (read in 11th grade)

That’s quite a bit (there were 97 books total on the list), and that doesn’t count a few others that I read in college or that may be on other school districts’ reading lists. A quick search of the “Why they were challenged/banned” page shows that the word “violence” shows up 11 times, “language” shows up 43 times, and “sex” shows up 62 times. I’d say I find this surprising or not even interesting, but it’s not–our culture has this weird, almost puritanical objecting to sex and language yet allows violence that makes the Tom & Jerry cartoons I watched as a kid look tame. I tell my students three things about literature that we often call “classic.” First, that there is a reason it’s called “classic” and is still taught even though it may be hundreds (even thousands) of years old and that’s because the insights those writers had into human nature are still applicable today. Second, literature does not happen in a vacuum–it affects the world and the world has an effect on it. Third, all great literature usually contains one or both of two things: sex and death.

They usually laugh at that last one and sometimes we spend a few minutes checking off what they’re read in English class that has sex and death. The one they go to first? Romeo & Juliet, which I cannot stand but do laugh about whenever a parent challenges anything in our school system (and it happens every once in a while) on the basis of sex because that particular play is a rite of passage for high school freshmen. No, seriously — generations of freshmen have left their English classes having read Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers and seeing Olivia Hussey’s boob. And the language? I do have to say that I find it amusing how scandalized some students are when they come across words like “shit” or even “fuck” in a work of literature (on a side note, I find it annoying that it’s 2012 and they still laugh when they see the word “gay” being used to mean “happy.” Seriously … “Oh, I’m going to have a gay time!” “GAY! HERP DERP DERP!!!” Are we EVER going to get over this?!), as if nobody ever in the history of the world used profanity or wrote said profanity down. Additionally, I find it frustrating that parents are constantly challenging books on the basis of foul language. It seems that in this day and age that’s pretty naive.

Oh sure, you may not let your kids use that type of language in your house, but it’s not like they’ve never been exposed to it through what they see on television and in movies, hear in their music, or even hear in the hallways and cafeteria of their schools. Not only that, but somewhere along the line in history, writers decided that reflecting the world they lived in–in other words, writing realistically–worked. Even when they were being surreal, they found it necessary to have characters that their audiences could relate to.

The result? Profanity. Maybe even sex. And violence, profanity, and sex are engaging to young readers and have been for a long time. I remember a few books that had pretty dirty parts to them (quite a few by Stephen King) that I picked up and read in full and wound up getting more out of than said dirty parts. Besides, we’re supposed to be expected to have a certain amount of respect for our students and telling them they can’t read something isn’t showing much respect. Instead, opening a discussion, having a conversation with them is much more respectful. One of the most subversive things a student can do these days is read a book, especially a book that makes them slow down, think, and yes, even challenge what they believe.


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