WARNING!: Self-Censored

This week, my creative writing class delved into the murky depths of sensory details in fantasy texts.  Among other things, we discussed Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  Naturally, many of my students have read the series and they were enthusiastic to talk about books that hold such a special place in their hearts. 

At one point, a student spoke up and asked why this series has been banned from some school districts.  I answered as best I could:  Because it addresses biblical topics—like the Book of Genesis, Creationism, and Original Sin, to name a few—that  some people find controversial.  The next day, a student proudly showed me his brand-new copy of the book.  “I couldn’t read this before,” he told me, “because it was banned at my old school!”  The student then shared that he’d previously attended a private Lutheran school.  Uh oh.

I’ve always quietly pushed the envelope when it comes to reading material with my students, but I also know my boundaries.  If I feel that a text is engaging without being salacious, I choose to share it with them in an open environment where I can help guide the discussion.  These books often introduce reluctant readers to reading that they wouldn’t otherwise find, and simultaneously stimulates the brains of voracious readers as well.  In other words, if I feel like I can stand by a book’s content, quality, and over-arching themes, I will stand by it even in the face of parental or administrative opposition.

That sounds all brave and bold, doesn’t it?

But the truth is that I’ve never had to defend my book selections.  Which tells me one of a few things:  Either I’ve made good choices over the years, or no student has ever mentioned a controversial topic at home, or I’ve always had like-minded parents and administrators.

Because when all is said and done, teaching inevitably censors a person.  We’re contractually forbidden from telling students our political views—even if they ask, say, who we voted for in the last presidential election.  I know that students troll Facebook looking for incriminating photos of their teachers—gasp!—drinking alcohol.  I swear like a sailor outside of school, but I can honestly say that I’ve never cursed in front of my classes, even by accident.  So, of course, I’m careful about what I write.  Even sub-consciously. 

For example, how do I handle sex in my novels?  I know that my students have questions about it, think about, are even having it.  But what’s my responsibility as their teacher?  Would writing about it compromise my job?  And then there’s drugs, politics, alcohol, religion, sexuality…the list goes on.  Bottom line:  When you’re a teacher, it’s hard to separate yourself from that identity, and the (however unfair) standards that we’re held to.   

On June 2nd I’ll say goodbye to teaching and begin writing full-time.  While I know that I’ll miss teaching, it will be such a relief to loudly push the envelope.  To let go of that protective teacher voice and write whatever I want.  Whatever it is I feel will speak to teens.  I’m not saying I expect my books to be banned, but would it be such a bad thing if any of them were?  And sure, if I’m lucky enough to have an agent, an editor, a publisher, I know that those parties will have a say in what goes into my final drafts.  But at least I’ll be writing with conceptual freedom to begin with.  How liberating it will be to approach my fiction with unadulterated fearlessness.

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