Censorshi​p of Books in Maine Schools: An opinion from behind the podium.

Recently, a parent and State Representative of my home state, has sought to ban obscene material in the form of books from classrooms across Maine.

Initially, Amy Arata planned on appealing to ban certain books featuring obscene material after her son brought home “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. She felt that its sexually explicit nature was inappropriate for public school classrooms. Arata’s call to action claims that first, parents need more say in what their children are reading.

She also claims that something must be done to alleviate this kind of material from the classes of students who have faced trauma before they are traumatized more by the reading of similar events.

More recently, and probably based on a more clear understanding of Maine’s obscenity statute, Arata is now advocating for heavier parent involvement in the approval of these texts, by advocating the need for a statute that educators get permission from students and parents prior to assigning a book.

In an interview recently she gave the reasoning that “The way it is right now, you have to react to the book after the fact after the child has already seen it.”

My Teaching Process of Obscene Material

As an English teacher, I have mixed emotions about Arata’s proposal, that if passed and violated, will charge teachers criminally for the offense.

My curriculum has incorporated books that Arata may find obscene based on certain scenes and themes featured throughout. Books like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and “Whale Talk” by Chris Crutcher and “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson address what it’s like to be a young person today. By using language, events, and imagery that include some swears and sexuality the writers work purposefully to connect with audiences. They do this in trying to empower and educate kids on what it means to face racism, cyclical poverty, bullying, and yes even sexual assault.

Like most teachers in my classroom prior to reading, I would discuss with my students before we read the comfort levels of the content, making them aware of what was in the book and asking that they speak to me if they were at all concerned about what they would be reading. I was and am always cognizant when choosing these books of anything traumatic in student files that could be brought up and hurt them. Often times I worried about those students that had never come out and told anyone about their specific experiences as well if I’m being honest.

And while I continue to explain minuscule examples of the work, stress, and thought that I put into these large undertakings of pairing reading with life lessons for kids, I am caught questioning, will what Arata proposes solve any problems involving trauma? Or will it just comfort the parents that are concerned which is a small group according to my experiences?

In my research, I saw in an article that Arata claimed that the defense that this material (sexual, offensive, lude) is everywhere, is a poor excuse because school’s shouldn’t be condoning it whether it exists or not. Her goal is solely to keep kids from being exposed to issues their parents don’t want them to be exposed to at school because it’s school, and that is supposed to be a place of education. She’s right.

School’s should be educating and preparing students to face a world where they understand that some obscene scenes, themes, language, and imagery, are used for purposeful artistic, scientific, literary, or other intention that establish relationship, knowledge, and connection between readers the books and our world. 

They should be able to decipher when something is appropriate, or isn’t, and that comes with experience and exposure under the careful guidance of responsible adults that can be consulted and used to inform parents and other necessary personnel of anything that consistutes concern.

The Point about Trauma and Obsenity in Classrooms

When I would consider these issues about content and it’s nature of “obscenity”, it was well known to me, as it hopefully is to Amy Arata, that based on the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey 1 in 4 Maine High School students have experienced 3 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

I know this, prior to this recent debate, because my school district went above and beyond to inform me who was sitting in the desks in front of me as humans. An ACE is something like experiencing the death of a parent, the incarceration of a parent, abuse physical or mental by family members, sexual abuse, living with an adult with mental illness and other traumatic experiences.

Students that suffered from 3 or more of these ACE’s are more likely to experience on their own, depression, drug use, alcohol abuse, and other problems according to this same survey of Maine students.

Instead of saying, a quarter of my class has experienced some sort of trauma and limiting our reading options to let’s say Dr. Suess or The Magic Tree House Series, I instead, educate myself and my students while supporting them in a comfortable classroom climate to make sure they feel like what they’ve been through isn’t an offense that no one else has experienced, but to assist in their healing process if possible.

Because for every student, who under Arata’s proposed legislation would have a parent that sign a release form to read a book that was potentially obscene, there would most certainly be dozens of students whose parent’s don’t care enough to read a paper that goes home, who aren’t around, or are actually the violators of the abuse Arata is attempting to protect students from.

As a mandated reporter providing books and writing opportunities that allow students to feel like they can trust me, and relate to our content, I often was the first to know about many of these issues, long before a parent.

In my short five years in classrooms, I’ve had plenty of examples of adults letting me know they were thankful that our content addressed these issues so that their kid felt comfortable emailing me in the middle of the night before they were called into crisis for attempted suicide. I’ve had parents like Arata thank me for supporting them through intense bullying, or other issues related to the content from the pages of our books.

Parents Deserve a Right to Say No

Do I agree that parents should be more involved in what teachers send home for reading? Yes, because in my experience only about a third knew my name, what I taught their high school-aged children, or if there was an assignment due, not for lack of trying on my end. Communication is key for students to succeed in school, and I am open to discussing how we can strengthen this across the board, beyond book choice.

And, at the end of the day, I and our state guidelines already say that parents have the right to choose what their child reads if it is objectionable based on their point of view for personal reasons. I’ve had people opt out for religious reasons multiple times in which I, and my department and school, have had plans put in place to accommodate these situations.

The reasons that those types of statutes currently exist is so that few personal views cannot affect the whole when it comes to moral projections of what is deemed “offensive” from one family to another. See, the Supreme Court standings on obscene material if you’re curious about this.

Maine’s statute also stands by the fact that if something has scientific, literary, or artistic value and purpose, it should be taught to our future adult citizens because it will be their job to live, love, and work in a world where this kind of material is currently becoming less significant compared to the tasteless and grotesque media that is currently engulfing our young people’s lives.

The Power of Purpose

As James Baldwin said, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” 

English teachers everywhere are begging students to put down the phone and read the quiet pages of the books because in them are whispers of lives that can unite our world in a safe space. With purpose, obscenity is necessary, because our students are living in a society coated with it and they need to be taught and talked to about its meaning and purpose.

Before signing a bill or passing a law:
Let’s communicate to kids that trauma does indeed impact their lives, and we see that; we are there for them. Not there to dance around it, but to be in it with them, as peers, as parents, as teachers. To most certainly accommodate for those experiences by changing books, lessons, or what may be needed to help them be comforted or cope on an individual basis. But not by passing a statute that criminalizes educators for working to break down the walls of stigma that were built by generalizing all experience or material in fear.

Let’s trust the teachers in our buildings, and if one of them crosses the line, follow the chain of command and address the issue. But not micromanage the content experts that are working so diligently to create a culture of readers, empathizers, and future leaders for all, not just a few.

Let’s stand up for our students, those impacted by trauma or not, and say we want you to have access to materials that matter. We don’t want to limit your educational opportunity by adding red tape, we want to expand upon it in a relevant fashion that relates to your lives. Let’s remind them that we are here to teach what a world of tomorrow looks like by connecting it to materials of today and yesterday.

Let’s be purposeful in our actions passing statutes just as many authors are when incorporating content that is necessary to teach a lesson and mold a mind.

Lastly, let us be reminded that the individuals behind podiums are there to help, not to hurt and that with communication together we can accomplish great things for our students.

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