As a 23 year old teacher long ago, in a school district far from here, accused by a local minister of “raping” a young man of his innocence, we imagine the worst. We imagine a teacher who has sent inappropriate photos or messages to a student she is responsible for professionally. What we don’t imagine is that the accusation of “rape” came in the form of a classic coming of age novel, The Learning Tree, by Gordon Parks.
Almost 20 years later, I sit chatting in my classroom with a group of aspiring English teachers from Plymouth State University and their professor, Dr. Meg Petersen, about issues in education. We are collaborating on a narrative writing unit for my ninth graders where they take turns teaching mini lessons and mentoring my students one on one or in small groups. They are full of thought provoking questions, and we spend my plan period debriefing their lesson, reflecting on what worked and what presented challenges. On this particular day, the topic of censorship arises, and they want to know if I’ve ever been steered away from teaching a particularly sensitive book or issue. “No,” I explain, “here I feel incredibly fortunate to teach within a district which extends the professional courtesy to me entrusting those decisions to our English department directly.” Of course, if there is a questionable issue, we give our principal a head’s up just in case a parent calls concerned. We send a letter home in September explaining our philosophy regarding books and tell them honestly we won’t have read every book their teenage child is reading independently. So if they are nervous about content matter, they should increase their level of communication with THEIR kid about what they are reading.
Then I explain the one time I was unable to finish a book with students, despite being two thirds of the way through. The decision was made by the administration to remove The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks from my 8th grade classroom.
What I remember most is my then principal, an outstanding leader, well respected among his faculty, coming into our team planning meeting and asking if I had a few minutes to speak with Dan’s dad with him in the office. Sure thing- not a problem. Dan was not his real name, but his dad was a nice enough guy and I’d met him a few times at sporting events, parent teacher conferences etc. Even my principal was unprepared for what followed, and I only grew nervous when I asked if Dan would be joining us for the meeting, thinking this had to do with a recent essay he had submitted and not done as well as expected.
Instead, the dad looked up and said, “I do not want my son anywhere near this woman. She has raped him of his innocence.”
Say what? And then my feisty principal let him have it, actually placing his hand in a very paternal, defensive manner between me and the minister father across the table. He explained I would not be spoken about in that manner and that I did not need to be present for this meeting. But, since he had no idea what it was regarding thought it would be helpful if I attended. This father’s head swelled with such rage and redness, so much so that I truly felt he must have me confused with someone else. Then my principal asked for clarification, “Please explain why you feel your son has been injured in Ms. Ehrman’s classroom. She is a person of the highest character and one of our best educators. We are extremely lucky she has chosen our community to teach in.”
“Do you know the trash they are reading as a class? This Learning Tree nonsense by Gordon Parks?
I’m speechless and don’t believe my role is to do anything but listen as my administrator uses a calm tone. “Of course, I’m familiar with the novel, and it is a classic, coming of age story about a young black boy growing up in the south. Have you read the whole thing?” This is a valid question because there are many books which lines taken in isolation construe a very different message.
“I don’t need to read the whole thing. I overheard Dan and a friend laughing about the part where the main character has a wet dream. My principal glances at me, and I nod as the father is accurate, but we don’t ever talk about the wet dream in class. Some kids read right over it and don’t even notice what has happened very quickly on one page in a very small paragraph. But I don’t say any of this because I’m nervous and young and have never been put in this situation before. And if I could go back in time and change the words which would come out of my mouth, I would. But I can’t and so they have stuck with me all these years later.
“With all due respect, sir, puberty is a scientific fact of life, and if your son hasn’t had one (meaning a wet dream) yet, it’s just a matter of time. Reading this book is not going to change that,” rationalizes the 25 year old version of me.
My principal sent me back to class and assured this angry father that he and I would speak further on the matter at which point a list of names in his congregation was presented to him as support for my being fired over the situation. Later that day, the English department head and administrators met to reassure me that I had done nothing wrong as a teacher, but that it might save us all a head ache if I just summarized the end of the story and collected the books from my students.
And so I did and The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks remained checked out of the Public Library for many months to come. My students desperately needed to know what was so bad, so dangerous, so hurtful that they were not permitted to read the conclusion in class.
“We don’t understand, Ms. Ehrman, what was so awful? I don’t get it.”
Sadly, neither did I, but I did learn three very important lessons:
- Whenever someone else sets up a parent meeting for me, I need to know the purpose ahead of time.
- I joined the Education Association (AKA teachers’ union) at every school I taught at subsequently.
- Whenever a parent of a student uses violent or derogatory language like “rape” in this situation or “Bitch” more recently in an email, I require a face to face conversation with an administrator present and demand an apology.