Saucy Wench has been reading this blog off and on since we met at Yale this past summer. She mentioned her own experience with book banning in a comment here during Banned Books Week. I asked her if she would write a guest post about her battle with censorship over Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and am pleased to say she agreed.
Upon the approval of my department chair and the students’ parents, who received a rationale for the novel and an alternative read if they preferred their child not read The Chocolate War, I quickly set to work teaching students about the evils of hazing and bullying as demonstrated in Cormier’s classic. (I must note that only one student out of nearly 125 read the alternative selection, which was Oliver Twist.) Our stimulating analysis came to a screeching halt one afternoon when a colleague, a history teacher, raised objection to the novel’s mention of masturbation and use of vulgar language, and requested that the principal investigate the matter. What followed was a 3-month battle for which college training had not prepared me.
The social studies teacher took his crusade to the congregation of his church and the editorial section of the local paper. “Students are being tarnished,” he claimed when he mounted his case that the novel be banned from the school’s library and classroom use. Early in the fight, before my name had leaked to the community, the pastor of my own church prayed from the pulpit for my conscience. Weekly editorials chastised my methods, my values, my character. Colleagues looked at me skeptically during faculty meetings. Parents avoided me at sporting events. Needless to say, it was disheartening and alienating. However, while the community united against the words in a book, I gathered my resources and prepared my defense.
Armed with nearly 100 documents—samples of student work, rationales for teaching the novel, articles about banned books, and a letter of recommendation from my university professor—I entered the April meeting of the school board certain I would exit it triumphant. For several grueling hours the board members listened to petitions both in support and in condemnation of The Chocolate War (and me, for that matter). When the smoke cleared, the board decided not to ban The Chocolate War from the library or the classroom, but the scars of that experience could not be ignored. After some personal reflection, I decided to leave that district for other teaching pursuits several states away. While I felt accomplished in my instruction that year, I worried that for the rest of the time I spent in that district, I would be viewed as “the teacher of that book” instead of for my true teaching ability. I would not allow my identity as a teacher to be tainted by the narrow-minded ideology of those afraid of words on a page.
Several moths later I had the opportunity to meet Robert Cormier at a literature conference. One of my most prized possessions is a novel he signed for me.
Saucy Wench continues to fight the good fight as a high school English teacher. She blogs about teaching, literature and life at Saucy Wench's Words.