Thursday, March 8, 2018

Teacher Recommends IF I GROW UP After Parkland Shooting

Our weapons of empathy on trial: Guest opinion

A Westview High School teacher speaks out after Beaverton School District administrators banned a book due to "inappropriate content and vulgar language." Books, she argues, allow students "access to new perspectives that build empathy. And in a nation where kids are killing kids, what more can we hope for students but to become more empathetic and connected."(Michael Rubinkam/AP)
By Jacqueline Fitzgerald
The morning after the Parkland shooting, my students eyes are narrowed, arms crossed across their chests, bodies sunken into their chairs. They're making themselves smaller, keeping themselves safe. Twenty years ago as a freshman, I stood in my living room ready to run from the television screen where bodies fell out of windows at Columbine. Here we are again and again and again.

They need to talk.

"Why haven't we done anything about gun control?" my student asks.

It gets quiet. The quiet resonates with fear and betrayal by those in power who are supposed to protect them.

In this country, we can't ban AR-15s, which make it easy for a teen to murder, but we can ban books. And my school district did.

The week before the Florida shooting, Beaverton School District Deputy Superintendent Steve Phillips overrode the decision of a hearing committee to keep the novel "Stick" by Andrew Smith in our schools and instead banned the book from 9th and 10th grade classrooms due to inappropriate content and vulgar language.

Inappropriate content is social media feeds with live videos of dead teenagers in school hallways. Vulgar language is calling teen shooters "psycho" and "murderer" when they are victims themselves. Victims of broken systems with inadequate access to mental health services. Victims with absent parents holding down two jobs or an opioid addiction. Victims of the politicians who divide us.
Meanwhile in Beaverton, two more books have hearings this month. The danger of banning books containing sexual violence, homosexuality or any human experience is that it justifies banning books with similar content.

"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson is about a freshman named Melinda going silent after she is raped at a party. After my freshman class read this last year, a student filled with vivacious energy in September who had begun to collapse into herself, came to me with tears in her eyes.

"I want to tell you something... I am Melinda. That book gave me courage to come forward about what happened to me and heal."

One of my gay students made a nearly fatal suicide attempt in October after his parents shunned him when he came out. He is now living with a foster family. I asked him what's helping him get through. "Books," he said, "they help me feel less alone."

"The Hate You Give" by Angie Thomas is one of his favorites and was banned in a Texas school district last year.

Another student whose father faces deportation and works two jobs to support his mom and two younger siblings, finds escape in "If I Grow Up" by Todd Strasser. My male students of color, who often struggle to find books that they connect with, pass it around like treasure. I can't keep it on my shelves.

Smith, the author of "Stick," when interviewed about the ban in Beaverton said, "When somebody just comes in, blocks, interferes with a kid's access to information or viewpoints, that's absolutely the opposite of what we need right now."

English teachers refer to books as windows and mirrors. They reflect our students' experiences and allow them access to new perspectives that build empathy. And in a nation where kids are killing kids, what more can we hope for students but to become more empathetic and connected.

Do you remember a book that changed you? Helped you reach out rather than retreating into yourself? Can you imagine what your life would be without it?

I wouldn't want to. And our students should never have to find out.

-- Jacqueline Fitzgerald is a language arts teacher at Westview High School. She lives in Southeast Portland.

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