In Defense of Speak, and Rally Cry Against Intolerance

Before publishing this post I just finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s follow up to the article I’m referencing. It appears that my leap to her defense is somewhat tardy, however I still want to leap.

Where am I living? I am living in a country where inflammatory, baseless rhetoric has replaced actual or thoughtful debate. Where the person with the most money or the loudest microphone or the most powerful friends actually defeats the person with the superior ideas. A country where intolerance seems to get a free pass when it is wrapped in the cloaking blanket of morality. All the while these injustices go unchecked because the silent majority is too busy trying to make mortgage payments until Wells Fargo and Citigroup can stop giving bonuses long enough to pay our money back. Something is happening in America, something that has me furious. That something is indignant religious intolerance masquerading as some kind of moral avenger for America.

I am a public high school teacher. I teach English. I have taught English for twelve years. I work in a school located in a town with no industry, where the population has made a casual exodus for a decade in search of waning prosperity. Fifty five percent of the students in my school receive state assistance to pay for their lunch (frequently comprised of government donated food), those are the ones who’ve overcome the embarrassment to apply. The others feign indifference or pretend they’re not hungry or duck into the bathroom for the period. Given this backdrop of poverty, every year I begin my class with a simple poll. I ask the students in my class how many of them read a book for fun over the summer. Can you guess the results? Without exception the percentage of students who read a book for pleasure has declined every year since I began. Even through the glut of adolescent wizards and sparkling vampires this trend continued. There is no need to complete your degree to interpret these results. Most kids in my district hate to read.

The problem has become so pronounced that for the past two years I have no longer given students reading to take home. Instead my pace slows to a crawl as I require students to read in the room in my presence. Maybe they can’t read and that’s why they hate it. I’ve thought of that, seems like a large percentage to be completely illiterate though. I think for many of my students the answer lies in what they are reading rather than the skills they bring to the book. I come to this conclusion because with some books, certain particular books the students are engaged. With certain books they are willing to engage in the most abstract or critical conversations. With certain books students seek me out or stop me in the hallway to talk to me about them. Speaking from my own personal experience these books have nothing to do with prepubescent boys marooned on an island or talking pigs named after short French generals.

I started teaching Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in 2005. I had heard about the book in young adult literature circles, my administration trusted me (key to teacher success by the way) and I ran with it. I was astonished by my students’ reaction to the material. Firstly, they loved the protagonist’s honest portrayal of high school. They could relate to her voice, and because they could relate to her voice I could teach them about voice. When Melinda was arbitrarily ostracized by former friends I could see a twinkle of understanding in the eyes of formerly unreachable students. The novel turned out to be so successful for me that students wanted to talk about it all the time, this was when I created my first student blog (which I just checked and is still up). The experience of teaching this novel was transformative for me in the sense that it shook my steadfast reliance on so-called classics and encouraged me to listen to my students more.

Given this experience I was shocked and dismayed to read this entry from Anderson’s blog asking for help defending Speak against a baseless attack. Anderson makes an eloquent defense herself, which I won’t reiterate and I encourage you to read her post. I would like to say this: wholesale banning of books is wrong. It is always wrong. Just as it is wrong to force all children to read the same book. If children are never exposed to ideas, how can we ever discuss them. Sensible teachers can make sensible decisions about curriculum. Sensible parents can make sensible decisions about whether or when their children are exposed to a book. Self-aggrandizing rhetoric like that of the esteemed professor Scroggins does nothing to help parents or teachers discuss big ideas like the ones in Speak. Instead it merely enflames a trusting public who may have not read the book. Just as an example, to say that Speak is a book about rape is like saying Avatar is about wheelchairs.

Incidentally, and in the interest of full disclosure I have met Mrs. Anderson who was kind enough to sign a book for me. One that I keep in my classroom and fawn over each time I begin the book.

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5 thoughts on “In Defense of Speak, and Rally Cry Against Intolerance

  1. ktenkely says:

    Excellent response Chris. You are absolutely right, banning books cannot be the answer. Ever. *clapping*

  2. Hi Chris,

    There’s no such thing as tardy when it comes to this party! I think “Speak” needs as many defenders as we can rally. It’s great to hear that you have such a positive response to “Speak” in your classroom. Teachers need to find books that kids can enjoy, if they want to build a love of reading. I was long out of high school when I read the book, but I was deeply touched by it, and found myself wishing the book had been around when I was that age.

    Dr. Scroggins’ assessment of the novel is no more than a mean-spirited attack. He goes out of his way to twist the story around to make it sound tawdry and tasteless. Give me enough time with the Bible, and I can make it sound like pornography, too. I’m not convinced Scroggins really cares about these books as much as he does the publicity he is generating by villifying them. The good news is, his attack will probably increase the books’ popularity.

  3. I think that book touched nerves in a lot of people! That’s why it’s so important.

    🙂 Maria

  4. Passionate post, Chris. It’s never to late to stand up for what you believe. I now feel like I’ve missed something very important… time to hit the library.

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