Friday, November 5, 2010

Course Content

Ages ago, when I was in tenth grade English, we read "A Rose for Emily," and I was the kid who got bonus points for being able to tell the class that necrophilia was the act of loving and/or having sexual intercourse with a corpse.  My teacher commended me and suggested that my research skills would serve me well when he assigned our class our first ever research paper.  

Mom, where is the correction sheet?
He was the grammar Nazi of the Honors English sequence.  If you had two comma splices, you failed the grammar section of the paper, which meant you failed the entire paper because grammar counted for half of the total points.  I started writing the thing on my mother's ancient, fifty-pound typerwriter with type bars no less.  By some miracle, my dad decided to buy a computer for the family for Christmas.  And folks, this was when Word Perfect had been around for only a handful of years.  No spell check, no grammar check.  Just your eyes and a list of rules. 

My point?  The man was a total bastard, 32 years old, most likely still a virgin, who often joked that he had so much in common with Christ that he would probably die at age 33. 

Should a person like that be teaching kids?  Hell fucking yeah!  

Maybe Sexy Muffet would've been acceptable
He didn't take shit from anyone, including uptight, overprotective parents.  Not long after my dissertation on necrophilia, one of my classmate's parents went nuts over our class reading about that as well as reading about rape, abortion, and euthanasia (Kevorkian was just getting started).  The Christ comments were just the icing on the close-minded, humorless cake.  The day after he was called to the principal's office for a conference, he came to class and said, "Look here, little children.  We aren't reading Miss Muffet.  This is a literature class about serious works.  If you want to read safe stuff, go back to regular English and get out of my Honors class."  A few parents did pull their kids out of the class.  I stayed, and I learned so much more from him than the fact that men with man boobs should never wear tight t-shirts.

He taught me that even if a work has "questionable content," it doesn't make it unworthy of reading.  It doesn't make it an less valuable or important.  He stood up to those who would censor him and his course content and for good reason.  We read short stories, essays, poems, plays, and novels that opened my eyes and mind to aspects of my world that I had never considered, which allowed me to go to college with an open mind.

This brings me to my second point about content.   

I took a course in classic lit in my junior year.  It was backtracking, and having already had the classics in another Honors College survery course, I had read most everything we were covering.  You know, Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Virgil, Aeschylus, etc. As I hoped, I cruised through, which was great since I had two of my hardest math classes yet.

We also studied The Bible as literature, something that doesn't generally go over too well in the bible belt.  I asked our teacher -- a scared shitless graduate student only two years older than me -- if we would be studying any of the books not in the canon, to which he answered no, and I said, "Well, damn."
The girl next to me says, "What are you talking about?"
Me: "Books that were written but not included in the Bible, like The Book of Mary about Mary Magdalene and her life as an apostle."
Girl: "She wasn't an apostle.  Women can't be preachers.  It says so in the Bible."
But I had long hair then
I had a Sheila Broflovski moment...what, what, what?! 
Me: "Have you read the Bible?"
Girl (now glaring at me): "Yes."
Me: "Then you know about Priscilla and Aquila -- the married couple that BOTH preached?"
Girl (looks around the room and at the teacher): ...
Guy from my computer science class laughs.
Me: "What do you think Mary did while she traveled around with Jesus?  Do you think she just hung out and cooked dinner?"
Girl (now looking worried): ...
The teacher looked worried too.
Me: "Many books were written but not all of them made it into the Bible.  It'd be too big to carry, but mainly, King James, or rather the members of the church who wanted to control what people thought and did, had a lot to do with what stayed and what went."
Girl: "No, God is perfect and the Bible is His Word and if He wanted it in the Bible, He would've made sure it was in there."
Me: "Uh, haven't you heard of free will?"
Guy from CS quotes Hamlet, calling the girl Horatio.  The girl looks at me like she can't decide whether to scream at me or cry.  Finally, the teacher grows a pair and reclaims the classroom.  The girl never sat next to me again.

Take it back! Evolution is only a THEORY!
That day made me wonder what happened to the girls and boys whose parents removed them from my tenth grade English class.  Did they spend their high school years completely sheltered from learning anything true about the world around them?  Did they never think to question anything?  I wondered if they went off to college and had a rude awakening or worse, they never had any sort of awakening.  Perhaps, but then again, some people react badly to having their safe, hermetically sealed worlds opened.

For fear-driven reasons, things get left out, important things, things that would add richness and dimension to the story and the characters or people involved.  Damn it, I believe that by including such things -- hard things, scary things, bad things, rip-out-your-heart-and-stomp-on-it things -- the stories and history are made real and better.  Trouble of any flavor evokes a response, for better or worse.  Without it, fiction is meaningless fluff, and non-fiction is mind-numbing fact reporting.     

If you write, even if you write fantasy like I generally do, write something real.  Write what you are moved to write, and fuck the censors.  If you don't write, but you read, then read things that make you feel, that elicit something powerful from you, that meaningfully change the way you see the world or Mankind.  Censoring yourself, whether as an artist or a reader, cheapens your experience.

Oh, and my mother would ask, "Do you have to use so many expletives?" 
And I would say, "Yes.  Yes, I do."

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