One of my all time favorite teachers was my junior high English teacher. It was an honors class and she expected quite a bit from us and I think we rose to the occasion more often than not. When she taught us how to write dialogue, we wrote a soap opera as a class. Everyone had to submit title suggestions as well as several characters with descriptions. There were rules like only 5 characters could be alive at any one time, you could only come back to life three times, and of course the dialogue had to be written correctly. Everyone had to take the whole thing home at least once and add a certain amount to bring back and read aloud the next day. We loved that project so much that we voluntarily did it again in 8th grade.
We talked a lot about current events and the way it shapes what people think is appropriate. We talked about book bans and read Fahrenheit 451 together and then scoffed as that particular book being included often on the list of books people wanted banned. The very best thing was my teacher read us a book called Shabanu. She told us ahead of time it dealt with people from a culture that was not like ours and specifically a girl who was at the cusp of womanhood and what that meant in the context of the book. She asked our permission to share and warned us that it would likely be banned if the wrong people in the PTA heard about it. This was all literally back in the Nineteens, thirty years ago and I remember it all vividly. A class of 12 year olds begged their teacher for just one more chapter several times. And when Shabanu started her period and it meant she was to be married off to the man she didn’t know at all, the first person who realized that gasped. It was a boy who spent a lot of time being cool and in junior high, that is a monumental effort that affords little time for anything else. But he did have enough time to gasp for Shabanu.
There was a sequel to the book that came out and my teacher got one copy and let anyone who wanted to check it out from her directly. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t take a turn and bring it back quickly because we just all read it so fast wanting to know what happened next to our hero.
That teacher and those two years with her are what made start thinking it was strange that there could be groups of adults deciding what kids were capable of handling as they read books. There was a whole group of kids, that I was a part of, that could handle things like learning about another culture and discussing what makes someone adult in that culture versus ours. All we needed was an adult to introduce it to us and then let us process things to ourselves and out loud in class discussion. When we talked about banned books, all of us wanted the list so we could find out for ourselves why they were banned. What could be dangerous about taking a peek into someone else’s perspective and seeing the world through their eyes for a few chapters? You can’t ignore something because it makes you uncomfortable. Find a way to process it and learn from it. Banning the book doesn’t make the topic go away.