What Is Appropriate

originally published by The Quarterly Conversation, December 2006

We sit around a large table in a pleasant room in an old building, a room with giant windows and sunlight pouring in, and we discuss whether a certain novel is appropriate for a particular English class.

One teacher already has the book scheduled on her syllabus for her 9th grade students, thirteen and fourteen years old, because it makes, she thinks, a perfect companion to the book she’s soon going to finish with the class, The Catcher in the Rye. A new teacher, she had asked me at the beginning of the year if a book with some scenes of kids talking about sex and drugs would be prohibited, and I had told her that as long as she didn’t seem to be condoning the actions of the characters, she probably wouldn’t have much trouble.

Another teacher wanted to use the book with her 12th grade students, but had been taken aback by a scene in which two teenagers discuss oral sex. She showed the book to the head of the English department to see if teaching it would get her in trouble, and the head of the English department photocopied the scene to hand around at our department meeting.

“Oh my,” someone says.

Someone else laughs.

“Appropriate for 12th grade?” the head of the department asks.

“I’ve used worse with 11th grade,” I say. “I used American Gods a couple years ago and there’s a scene in that where a guy gets swallowed by a goddess’s vagina.”

People ignore me. They’re too busy reading about a blowjob.

I work at an independent boarding school, a school where our students buy their own books, and where, in the English Department at least, we have broad curricular freedom. We are encouraged to experiment. We are encouraged to come up with creative ways of teaching, to use new methods, to strive for excellence.

Someone looks at the cover of the actual book, which is being passed around the table. “It won an award,” he says. He looks closer. “An award for best young adult novel.”

“This puts the adult in young adult,” someone quips.

It is mostly men who have spoken. They are amused and not condemnatory, though few say they would, themselves, want to teach the book to 9th graders. Older kids, sure, but not 9th graders. Too many parents would complain.

Someone asks one of the women what she thinks. She is young and has only been teaching for a year or two. She looks around, then says, “I don’t know. I guess I probably wouldn’t use it with younger kids, not if parents would complain, I don’t know, but I think it’s important for kids to be able to read things that relate to their own lives, or at least what they hear around them, what they see, and if they can’t do that in school, where we can talk about it, and, well, I don’t know . . .”

I say most of what is on TV and in the movies they watch is far worse. I say we live in a country where not so long ago our president was impeached for a blowjob, and we all followed the story avidly.

What I don’t say is that I wouldn’t teach the book to 9th graders myself, because I wouldn’t want to spend all of my time justifying my choice and working against the students’ immaturity.  A great teacher would not be afraid to use this book in a 9th grade class, if it were the best book with which to convey certain ideas or to teach certain skills. A great teacher would make the entire conversation about appropriateness a part of the class. A great teacher would create an environment in which the students learned about both literature and the world. (I am not vain enough to think I am a great teacher.)

“If my son came home with this book,” one person says, “I would wonder what the teacher was thinking. If my daughter came home with it, I would be angry.”

The discussion continues. Consensus builds. Based on the two pages we have read, the book is not appropriate for 9th graders. But 12th graders, and perhaps 11th graders, should be able to handle it.

The teacher who had put the book on her syllabus for 9th grade looks perplexed and frustrated, as if the entire discussion had been conducted in a foreign language.

§

The day before this discussion, I had gotten into an argument with an administrator about a friend of mine, a writer who had just published a novel with a major publisher, and who was coming to our school to speak to the entire student body about her novel and herself.

The novel contains, near the middle, a scene in which three teenagers, all around eighteen years old, engage in a ménage à trois. It is an important scene in the book, one that reveals much about the characters and determines their fates for the rest of the novel.

I had given a copy of the book to the administrator, who, after he had started reading it, had been enthusiastic and suggested some classes he thought might benefit from using it.

Then he stopped me at dinner that night and said, “You didn’t warn me that it’s pornographic.”

I laughed.

“We can’t use it in classes,” he said.

“You’re joking,” I said. He is a man with a fine sense of humor, and is someone I’d never thought of as prudish.

“No, I’m not joking,” he said. “We have responsibilities.”

“Responsibilities?” I said. Our ideas of what was responsible practice, and who we were responsible toward, seemed to be diverging.

“And also,” he said, “we won’t be selling it in the bookstore, and she can’t bring copies to sell herself.”

I sat down with him. “So are we going to uninvite her?”

“No,” he said. “But we can’t appear to approve of her book as appropriate reading for teenagers. We can celebrate her, but not her book.”

I was silent. He said it seemed like I disagreed. I said I disagreed so vehemently I barely had the words to rationalize my feelings. I said his decision felt ridiculous to me, anti-intellectual, provincial. Here we had the opportunity for our students to spend time with an esteemed professional writer, but we would not provide them with a way to buy her book.

“They can get her book,” he said. “We just don’t want to provide it for them.”

Eventually, we came to a compromise: I would write a letter for the school to send to all parents, a letter that celebrated the writer and informed parents that she would be visiting, that we considered this a wonderful opportunity for our students, but that we would not have copies of her novel available in the school bookstore, because of the book’s mature themes and language. The novel, I said in the letter, was readily available via online sources and most bookstores, and the writer would be happy to sign copies for any students who were able to get them.

I told my friend about the situation. She was amused. She told me other stories of how people had responded to the sex in the book, some people finding it scandalous or vulgar, some people thinking she didn’t go nearly far enough.

I told her I was proud to know a peddler of smut.

§

I do not have my own children, but over the course of nearly a decade of teaching, I have known thousands of adolescents. I have had somewhere between 350 and 400 students go through my classes. During my first three years of teaching, I lived in a dorm with thirty 11th and 12th grade boys, mostly hockey players, and since then I have been a dorm parent in both male and female dorms. I am under no illusions that this makes me an expert in what is or isn’t appropriate with kids, but it has made me think that most of the time when we worry, we worry about the wrong things.

It is the job of educators to help students begin to understand the world they live in, the world they will inherit. Most of our students were not raised in homes without televisions, they were not prevented from encountering contemporary music and movies, they were not isolated from mass culture’s obsessions with sex and violence.

I’m hardly the first person to note that, in American society, violence is more acceptable–more appropriate–than sex. Perhaps the teachers who objected in our meeting to the blowjob scene in the young adult novel and the administrator who said we would celebrate a writer but not her writing might object just as much to a particularly violent book, one in which the violence was gratuitous. Even so, this is different from how the sex in these two books was being treated: in both books the sex scenes are not gratuitous–they are central to any reader’s understanding of the characters and situations.

But this group of us coming to consensus in the pleasant room in the old building, and this larger, nebulous group of us, the responsible citizens of the country, the adults — we apparently do not want students to think that sex can be central to an understanding of what it means to be human. For many of us, sex is something not spoken of, something that isn’t proper to present to teens, and yet twentysomethings are somehow supposed to understand and deal with it all responsibly, tastefully, knowledgeably.  Such a feeling is not just delusional, it’s puritanical, and it masks sexist and heterosexist assumptions about procreation being the be-all and end-all of sexual activity, the only truly appropriate sorts of sex.

Here is a statement I should make to my colleagues: We expect our students to develop mature, responsible attitudes toward sex without ever talking about it. We have decided that any sexual practices other than the most common heterosexual and procreative ones should not be discussed, should be hidden and shamed. We deny that our students have sexual curiosity, confusion, fear, experience.

Here is what I expect my colleagues would reply: This has less to do with sex than with explicit depictions in particular books. This is not about our own feelings or opinions, but the feelings and opinions of the people who pay for their children to attend our expensive school. We have health classes for students to learn about sexuality and we have counselors if they need someone to talk to privately. If students get caught having sex, they will get in a lot of trouble, and everybody knows it, so there’s nothing, really, to talk about. It’s not our responsibility.

It’s easier to feel that all of this is not our responsibility than it is to create an environment in which we could promote mature discussion of sex. It’s easier to say that these books are inappropriate than it is to look at why and how authors write such things, what they expect of their audience, and how the events affect our knowledge and judgment of the characters. It’s easier to assume that parents would complain than it is for us to encourage a discussion of adolescent sexuality, a discussion that doesn’t assume all sex is for procreation or that everybody should find pleasure in exactly the same way. It’s easier to shoot down books because of graphic content than it is to stand up for them because they’re literature. It’s easier for me to write this essay and address the world in general than it is for me to stand firm on my home ground and advocate for these ideas against the ideas of people I have known and worked with for years.

§

Where do our responsibilities lie? What is appropriate, and what is destructive and cowardly?

The society of school becomes more and more strict as the society in general becomes more permissive. Because sex is pervasive throughout consumer culture–because, as we so often hear, sex sells (constantly, vastly)–a moral panic erupts in educational institutions, where the idea grows more ascendant that teachers and schools can shape and mold the raw potential of youth into whatever is desired, regardless of other influences. Such a view of education is in one way flattering, because it assumes teachers possess godly powers, but it also positions those teachers, all very human, for failure. Simultaneously, such a view removes responsibility from students, even the most pliant or apathetic of whom do, occasionally, make decisions for themselves.

§

In my 12th grade Advanced Placement class right now, my students are reading Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, because I want them to think about books as things that are valued in places other than AP English classes. Nafisi contrasts her view of literature as creating realms of imagination and empathy against the view of literature offered by ideologues and fundamentalists who know only “crude and simplistic exaltation of right and wrong”.

I am having my students read a number of the books discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran, including Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. I am not having them read Lolita. I thought about it, but decided that in the current climate teaching a book whose narrator is a pedophile–a book I think is one of the greatest of all 20th century novels–would be potentially more trouble than I was willing to open myself to. I made that decision this summer, when I was putting together the curriculum for the class, but I have come to regret it, because I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness and maturity of my seniors this year, and I would like to see what they would have made of Lolita‘s complexities, and what we would have discovered about the book together.

Though my initial reason for not using Lolita in class did, indeed, have to do with its subject matter, if I had thought it all through more carefully, I would have realized an obvious fact: it is a rare group of high school students who are capable of really appreciating Lolita, of finding it anything other than tedious. Most high school students, or at least most of the high school students I know, are simply not yet sophisticated enough readers to get much of anything out of a book as rich as Lolita.

And that’s okay. Not every book is appropriate for every reader at all times. The books that affect us most deeply, the books that change our lives, are the books that we somehow discovered at the most appropriate moment, the time when we needed them and were somehow open to them.

My regret over not including Lolita on the syllabus is a small regret, much smaller than my regret at my colleagues’ crude and simplistic dismissal of the young adult novel and the novel by my friend. Reading Lolita in Tehran has caused many of my students to be intrigued by Nabokov, and I am confident Invitation to a Beheading will make at least a few of them interested in his other work. Indeed, one student has already told me she bought herself a copy of Lolita because Afisi’s description of it in her memoir, and the things I have said about it in class, piqued her interest. In some ways, this is the best result I could ever have hoped for–that a student’s curiosity would cause her to seek out a book and determine for herself whether it is appropriate.

I expect my colleagues would agree that were it possible to give our students some basic knowledge of all the books in the world, then a beautiful ideal would be to let them choose which books to read and when to read them. Because we must work with unbeautiful realities, we try to determine what books are appropriate for whom. We try to figure out what knowledge should be imparted, what knowledge should be ignored, and what knowledge should be hidden.  We strive for omniscience.

We will never succeed, because at heart each of us knows that it is rarely possible to determine what is, in any truly meaningful way, appropriate for another person. When we do discover such things, it is usually the result of blind luck and good guesses, and more often than not the results are a surprise. The best we can hope is to create the opportunity for other people to benefit from shared knowledge and to discover what is appropriate for themselves.

“What Is Appropriate” by Matthew Cheney, 2006, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

image: “Jepson 108 B” by kevin.creamer is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0