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Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Horse is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course...

(Spoiler alert:  This post may tread on some toes.  In the event that it does, please let that not be the end of our conversation together.  I love a good debate!!)

My abrupt nocturnal awakenings appear to be directly related to the general state of my mind.  In other words, you can trace my recent week of sleeplessness to a recent thrashing I have taken for a book I confidently placed in the hands of my 7th graders--a whole class of 29--bright kids for the most part--readers but for a small handful.  Give yourself 5 "I DONE Good!" points if you can guess from the post title the name of the book.  Scroll back and look if you must.  I'll wait.  And then the fun will begin!

 In the attempt to expose adolescent readers to more non-fiction (a task no less daunting than trying to change adolescents' eating habits), I purchased 25 copies of Seabiscuit, using up the last crumbs of my budget, throwing in some money of my own, adding my personal battered copy to the mix, and gleaning the library.  Not unpassionately did I enter this project.  I love the book and passed it out with much gusto and the promise that the kids would also love it.  My intro was met with groans which I ignored.  Then I watched the transformation.  About 7 chapters into the book the majority "hit a vein" and devoured the book.  Enter (the day before the book was to be completed) two mothers who (to put it mildly) did not carry my same devotion to this book about a quirky, "undersized, knobby-kneed,[1] and given to sleeping and eating for long periods" horse who caught the heart and spirit of a depression era country--one of the greatest animal stories ever told.  They found the language offensive (I admit there was nary an English nanny in the entire book) and couldn't believe I would assign a book of such quality.  And therein began my sleeplessness.

My response has been to apologize profusely to the mothers and my entire class for esposing them to the language in the book.  Oh, and that undescribed reference to prostituion in the chapter about horseracing in Mexico.  But what to do with 25 copies of the book?  Wite-Out?  A bonfire? resale?  A closet?  Razor blades?  Do we throw the whole baby out because she peed in the bathwater?  Help me out here.  What do you think?

Conclusions (which you DO reach eventually if you cogitate long enough about anything):  I will defend forever your right to read something.  I will defend the inestimable value of this book.  OH, YES!!!  OH, YES!!!!  Let there be NO mistake.  I DO NOT believe in whitewashing the world.  I DO believe it is our God-given duty to help each other navigate responsibly through this world.  I DO believe we are what we read.  Mealy mouthed books make for mealy-mouthed people.  I DO believe that many words of the vernacular of the day are unacceptable.  I do NOT use them.  I DO believe bad, shallow writing without offensive words is way way way way more damaging to my spirit than good good writing about the best of human values sprinkled with a few offensive words. Etc. Etc. Etc. Getting down off my soapbox.

My very articulate and bright students (for the most part) in this class joined me in a spirited discussion about censorship which was obviously prompted by the reading of this book.  As for Seabiscuit, they suggested perhaps a parent's permission slip  giving the go ahead.  They  suggested I could read it aloud and add my own censoring. Both workable solutions.

I found this quote which makes sense: "When middle school parents challenge books, it's often a last gasp to stay involved," says Camille Powell, a Houston area school librarian whose BookMoot website is a go-to destination for educators and kid lit aficionados. "Elementary schools are fairly responsive to parental input. However, the junior high transition years are frustrating and difficult for parents as their control over their children and the school gradually erodes."  I WILL be more careful.  And who was I to think that I could go 23 years and not get some fallout along the way?

Oh, my last note is for the horse himself:  Your legend lives on. Sleep well under your anonymous tree, Seabiscuit...wherever that is.


Heber and his "Deli" aka: Adele said...

I DO believe bad, shallow writing without offensive words is way way way way more damaging to my spirit than good good writing about the best of human values sprinkled with a few offensive words.

You just said it best yourself. Some of the best books I have ever read, books that are near and dear because of the effect they have played in shaping my life, have been sprinkled with such words. I do not feel that by reading them I became an offensive person. I hope in fact it has been quite the opposite.

Amber said...

permission slip sounds like a good idea to me.
It's not like you are promoting those activities, plus how can a kid learn to live in the world if they don't get a glimpse of how others may live. A lot can be learned about life without having to experience firsthand. Im preaching to the choir. But heavens forbid.

Taggartjc said...

If I were you, I would feel good about having made it through 23 years without suffering more parental wrath than that (or am I inferring too much?). Another thought: Being a lawyer, I am a fan of advanced disclosure. Would the parents in question have reacted differently had you let them know you were going to have the kiddies read that book and that there were a few parts that might be a bit racy? Gives you an opportunity to pre-sell the merits of the undertaking. Another thought: Hillenbrand's last book has less sex--but more blood and gore. Maybe that's better for 7th graders.

Taggartjc said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mad Hadder said...

(From an email sent by fellow teacher and good friend, Cathie. Love the summary she included.)
Read your blog with interest. Have not read the book, but I am familiar with the story. Too bad the parents only read the questionable wording and not the content. What a great lesson for young people to learn.

Marilyn, your students will ALWAYS remember this book. They will remember the terrific story, the triumph of characters, and the controversy reading the book caused. They are probably rereading it in a secret place right now!! Your students will remember this book when they learn about the Great Depression in high school and again when they take a class in college that debates censorship. I bet if you took a survey, for most it would be their favorite book ever read.

Review from The triumph of Seabiscuit is ultimately the story of what any person (or animal) may accomplish when their talents are recognized, supported, and expanded. Seabiscuit, given his inauspicious start in life, could just as easily have faded away into non-existence running third tier races. However, the love and care he receives from his owner, jockey, and trainer have you cheering until the end of the book for Seabiscuit to keep running (and winning) with his heart. Not only does Seabiscuit capture the hearts of the misfit trio, he will capture yours.

You are that teacher who recognizes, supports and expands young minds. Marilyn, keep being the wonderful, inspiring teacher you are!!



Mad Hadder said...

NC Tag, Yes, my first censorship issue except for a brief encounter with a Reading Rainbow videio. Yes, I should have sent home a disclaimer. Forever more I will. Unbroken. Phenomenol. I have two copies circulating among my good readers, and YES they are instant adorees.

theriddle said...

I can totally symphasize with the staying up late fretting about parents feelings aspect of teaching. Where I teach choir and not English my fretting is stems from parental conversations like this: "Why did my child not get the solo?!?" or "Sorry I planned a family vacation and didn't remember about the concert!?" Either way dealing with parents can be the most frustrating part of teaching.

Sending home permission slips with your warnings about the book and testimony of its merrits could help but hind sight is you know...20/20.

I remember when some of the parents at my school freaded out because the word "breast" was mentioned on a page of Gullivers Travels. sigh.

On another note I added Seabiscuit to my goodreads list.

Favorite books

  • Me 'n Steve
  • Thundering Sneakers
  • James Herriott's vet books
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Travels with Charley
  • A Walk in the Woods
  • Peace Like a River
  • The Egg and I
  • Mary Poppins
  • Extremly Loud Incredibly Close
  • How Green Was my Valley