Having been an educator in South Carolina across five decades, starting in the early 1980s, I have witnessed dozens of challenges by parents concerning assigned books, topics discussed, and controversial ideas raised in class discussions.
In the first years of teaching, I had assigned John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of sorts of the Old English classic Beowulf narrative, to my advanced tenth grade American Literature class (knowing they would read Beowulf the next year and also as preparation for advanced students going to college in just a few years).
Grendel was a highly regarded novel, experimental and challenging but also often humorous and deeply thought provoking. Gardner was also one of favorite authors, and his work fit well into preparing students for the Advanced Placement program.
However, this novel became my first book challenge experience as a teacher. I learned a few things.
First, it didn’t take long — my students informed me — to discover that a few parents had conspired to challenge the book primarily as a way to challenge me.
Next, I found out quickly that a few parents did have the power for making decisions for everyone — since the book was pulled from required reading for all students as those two parents requested (although it remained on my classroom shelves and in our library).
While Gardner’s novel does include what some people would consider crude language and one very brief graphic scene, this parent challenge was entirely about ideology, not literary quality or even offensive material.
More broadly, I learned that what I taught would always be about the politics of whose rights matter, including the rights of everyone in a free democracy, parents, teachers, and of course (although this is too often ignored), students.
A few other moments stand out from my two decades teaching high school English.
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