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Thinking Incite or Outside the Box?

So, the writing that motivated me to write this week all started with a newspaper article I found, about a Venice, Florida substitute teacher and the mess she found herself in with local school board officials and 12th-grade parents this year after just two days on the job!

Let me fill you in.

According to Sarasota Herald Tribune’s Yadira Lopez, one Lisa del Rosso, formerly a writing professor at New York University, (so clearly no academic slouch), gave her 12th-grade English class a writing assignment. They were to read the short story Alma by Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Junot Diaz. It is a very short short; probably no more than 1,000 words, and it is really beautifully written. It's clear why Diaz was selected by The New Yorker as one of its “20 Under 40” in 1999. It is also a tad risqué. Okay, it’s quite explicit. But that’s the whole point of the story. It wouldn’t exist if it didn’t detail the narrator’s experience with his sensual Latina girlfriend Alma, whose sensuality is the thing he finds so attractive about her.

But let’s get back to the teacher and her students for a moment. In the Lopez article, the teacher is quoted as saying that the during the previous school day students had seemed bored and listless, and after whizzing through their assigned work they quickly turned to scrolling through their phones. She clearly decided to ratchet things up a notch, and boy did the students sit up and take notice!

However, it turns out she wasn’t distributing smut for smut’s sake. She was asking really excellent thought-provoking questions, like: “Do you think this piece is controversial? Why do you think The New Yorker picked this piece to publish? Do you find anything in it offensive? Do you think the author did this for shock value, or is it authentic to the piece?”

Well, of course, there always has to be a party pooper. Some kid showed the story to his mom and dad, and within hours all hell broke loose. By the end of the day, Ms. Del Rosso had been given her marching orders, and told never to darken the doorsteps of the Sarasota County School Board again.

All the hand-wringing from parents believing their innocents were now scarred for life aside, I have some issues with the school’s position; the first being on a purely practical level. This isn’t a class of third-graders we’re talking about here. These kids are 17 and 18 years of age. In just six months they are going to be given the keys to the collegiate kingdom and wave goodbye to mom and dad. None of what they read in Alma was shocking to them, trust me. Such is the world in which we live. In-depth analysis of controversial subject matter isn’t a post-secondary option; it’s a requirement, so why not get next year’s college freshmen prepared today?

Secondly, being the literature geek that I am, I feel there’s something more important here. Literature, and especially good literature, is meant to incite! It’s meant to stir emotions and get the juices flowing; yes, even Alma’s (excuse the lame joke). It’s meant to inspire passion and fear and strength. It’s meant to test the conscience. It’s not as if racy subject matter is a product of modernity. A cursory pass of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is proof of that.

Am I right? Did the school board do the right thing, or did they go overboard? I’d like to think my position holds merit. If you’d like to decide for yourself, click on the link for the story above and let us know by commenting below.

As for the high-school seniors who, as one of them put it, “don’t usually [get to] read anything that isn’t blessed by Dr. Seuss himself”? For better or worse, they’ll likely never see the likes of Professor Lisa del Rosso again – or at least not until they receive hands-on education in the philosophical relevance of the red Solo cup, which usually occurs sometime during college Rush week! ;)

(Artwork above used in The New Yorker for Junot Diaz’s story Alma by Jaime Hernandez)

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