Tuesday, May 8, 2012

High School Reading List: Swear Words and Sex

I haven't read Looking for Alaska by John Green (nor anything by John Green which really seems like a big oversight) so I can't outright comment on if there is a scene in it that is so inappropriate as to scar Sophomores in high school. Somehow, I doubt it. Sumner and Knox Counties in Tennessee have both pulled Looking for Alaska from required reading lists.

I'm not going to go into a long rant about why censorship is bad or why parents who try to police all kids and not just their own are out of line. What I'd like to discuss is a line from The Tennessean's report about the Sumner County removal. The school spokesman made a comment that a book by a "classic" author like Steinbeck or Hemingway is less likely to make parents uncomfortable if there is bad language and/or sexual descriptions, which is apparently what is so scarring about John Green (apparently Looking for Alaska has 281 inappropriate words in its 216 pages, which is 1.3 times per page...which really sounds about average for high schoolers).

I can't remember all of the books that were required reading in high school (fairly sure I blocked some out on purpose), but there are some that I do remember: Romeo & Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, Great Expectations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury, Beloved, The Odyssey, The Yellow Wallpaper, Death of a Salesman, The Catcher in the Rye, The Crucible, The Grapes of Wrath, Our Town. And then there were books that were on a reading list that I did for some sort of project: Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Cold Sassy Tree, Treasure Island, Candide, The Magnificent Ambersons, Animal Farm.

I'm fairly sure that is not a comprehensive list because I'm sure we read more than 2 things Freshman year, but I have no idea what. And Sophomore and Junior year run together because I had the same teacher and sat in the same seat. However...the required readings...the trends I see are 1) "classics" and 2) pretty heavy stuff. Let's take something like Adventures of Huck Finn. That is not a particularly hard book to get through as it is fairly exciting what with all the action as it involves an escaped slave. However, it does use inappropriate language. Often. And to great effect. The N word is used to show the time but also to highlight the fact that it is inappropriate. We read parts of Huck Finn outloud in class. We were not allowed to skip words. My teacher used it as a teaching opportunity. Which is what a teacher does. Catcher in the Rye involves a scene with a prostitute. How is that more appropriate for teenagers to be reading than some bad language and an awkward oral sex scene? Or What about Streetcar Named Desire. The main character had an affair with a 17-year-old student of hers oh and also there is that whole rape thing. So rape is appropriate for teenagers to read but a consensual sex act isn't because the author is still alive? It doesn't make sense.

Part of growing up is learning what makes you uncomfortable and why. I tend to not get uncomfortable reading any sort of sex scene or anything with bad language. But reading about hateful violence really bothers me. Invisible Man really bothered me in parts. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't have been required to read it. In fact, it means that I definitely should have had to read it. You can never grow if you only stay in your comfort zone. And when you are in high school and figuring out what you are is the prefect chance to explore things that are inappropriate and make you uncomfortable in a safe and structured environment. I very distinctly remember discussing Huck Finn in class in a very frank discussion. Because my teacher was awesome and understood the importance of Sophomores being able to discuss why the N word is bad and why slavery was wrong and why such violence happened.

I don't know what lessons Looking for Alaska is teaching. If the inappropriate sex scene is really that bad that it makes people uncomfortable...good! As I understand it, it is supposed to be awkward and unsexy. So why can't a teacher use that to open up a discussion on the subject? Maybe I lucked out with having an amazing English teacher for two years in a row (Mrs. Tubergen...you totally rocked!) but I always felt challenged and free to discuss anything in a book, no matter how "inappropriate". So can we stop with the "high schoolers can't read about sex without having it" and the "swear words are evil" and the "sex is only ok to read about once the book is a classic" because it is all bullshit. To paraphrase a quote I read by Maurice Sendak today...kids don't break that easily. They can handle a lot of grim stuff. so let's assume high schoolers can, too.


  1. The awkward sex scene in question is used to make a good point, and not just for the sake of humorous, awkward sex (although it is awkward and humorous).

    The scene in question involves the main character receiving oral sex as part of a relationship based purely off of physical attraction, and is followed shortly by a fully-clothed pseudo-sex scene involving a much more emotional connection.

    IE: Purely physical relationship = Bad. Emotional connection = Good.

    1. Thanks for the description. I really only knew that it was awkward.
      So teaching a good lesson for teens and not glorifying or encouraging sex...Seems like something you would want to discuss in a class. And not ban.

    2. PS: You should read John Green's books, if not all, than at least The Fault in our Stars. Or Looking for Alaska.

    3. Yeah...I feel like I really really should. Especially because he wrote a book with David Levithan who I absolutely love.

    4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Very good.