Intellectual and academic freedom are dead and buried. Or at least that certainly seems to be the message coming from a school system in Connecticut which forced an award-winning Advanced Placement English teacher who had been an educator for 19 years to resign or be fired. His crime? He read a graphic poem by Allen Ginsberg to his class.
David Olio was pushed into resigning by the South Windsor School District after parents learned that the Ginsberg poem “Please Master” had been read in his class. The poem is an examination of homosexual affection that Ginsberg wrote in 1968.
A student brought the controversial poem to class for a reading and discussion of the work by the AP English students and instructor. But when school officials discovered that Olio had allowed the poem into the class, they sent him a letter of discipline which said, in part:
“Reading the poem in class showed egregiously poor professional judgment. You violated the trust placed by the Board of Education in you as a teacher, you brought discredit upon the South Windsor Public Schools, you undermined public confidence and parent trust in you as a teacher, and you put the emotional health of some students at risk.”
Put the emotional health of some students at risk? Are you kidding me?! With a freaking poem?!
But not all parents are as open-minded as I am, and one complained to a local TV station:
“I don’t feel that the content was appropriate whether it was a senior class or an honors class. It was a little bit much. I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind reading that particular poem.
Oilo’s colleagues, friends, and students rushed to his defense. One former student said:
“There has been a definite tonal change since I grew up here. It makes me think of Mrs. Flanders from The Simpsons: Will no one think of the children??? I mean, if there are parents in town who think their teenagers don?t know what a blow job is, they are sorely mistaken.”
Oh, but high school students don’t know anything about sex, do they? Don’t make me laugh!
On a personal note, I had an English teacher in 10th grade who encouraged the class to read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs as a way of showing us that even things we thought might be off limits to writers were grist for the creative mill. I promptly went to the public library, checked out Naked Lunch, and read it. And it is one many books that helped me realize I wanted to be a writer. Another teacher urged me to read Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which quite literally helped me better understand myself and the world around me.
As Kafka himself wrote:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
It is also mine. And I find it shameful that this fine educator of future minds has been banished into the intellectual forest by the ignorance of adults who think they can protect their children from the real world.