The Weight We Carry Is Love, or: On Teaching.

The headline caught my eye — it’s what headlines are designed to do. “A High School Teacher Was Forced To Resign for Sharing an Allen Ginsberg Poem.” 

It’s making the rounds in the news. Beloved high school English teacher of nineteen years forced to quit after allowing a classroom discussion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Please Master” in his AP English class. It’s a poem I didn’t know before reading the article, and I decided I wanted to read it myself (link here) before arriving at any conclusions.

Oh, I thought, as I read. Oh. Well.

It’s a beautiful poem. It’s evocative and raw and powerful, vulnerable and needy, pulsing with humanity and desire.

It’s also an incredibly sexual and graphic depiction of anal sex.

*

When I was in high school, I elected to take an additional English course during my senior year. Only nine of us opted in, barely enough to make the enrollment minimum. I remember that first day so vividly: mostly other tightly-wound kids from my AP English class, and a few kids I didn’t know as well — the ones I secretly wanted to be like. The ones who loved books, carried around dog-eared copies in worn backpacks, who cared less about grades and more about asking questions. The ones who had tried pot already, or who would sometimes show up bleary-eyed with smeared sharpie X’s on their hands, late-night concerts with bands I had never heard of.

We scanned the syllabus that first day. Death of a Salesman. A Streetcar Named Desire. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Lord of the Flies. Beautiful books, important books, gorgeous books. That most of us had, it turns out, already read, already studied in other classes, already written papers about.

I remember this moment so vividly, because it seemed so unlikely, so radical. This kid raised his hand and politely asked our teacher if the syllabus was up for discussion, since so many of us had already encountered these books before.

This woman’s face tightened a little, and she said something to the effect of, “I’ll think about it,” in the kind of tone that was meant to imply that she wasn’t planning to think about it at all.

*

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be
       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap
      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1968. 

*

The English teacher who allowed a poem about anal sex to be discussed in class has not given a statement to the press, but some details have emerged, details which are missing from some reports. At the end of the year, in the hot almost-summer weeks after the AP examinations are over, this teacher allowed his students to bring in their own material. Anything that the students were passionate about, that they wanted to spend classroom time discussing. He didn’t choose the poem himself. It was selected by one of his students.

And it is my guess that the classroom discussion of this poem centered around why this language is so powerful. How Ginsberg’s precise combination of words and phrases manages to build to such an explosive climax. How evident this poem makes it that there is abundant love contained within human need, desire, sexual expression; that the licking of shafts, the violence of penetration, the groaning and moaning and physical messiness of sex is also beautiful, is also divine.

Almost all AP English courses cover material such as George Orwell’s 1984, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Books in which the heroes are the kinds of characters whose journeys ultimately allow them to speak truth to power. Books where the villains are the societies themselves, societies where ideas are dangerous and independent thought is a crime. Books that make thrilling and compelling arguments that authority should be questioned, that free speech is vital, that censorship is morally abhorrent.

Imagine being the teacher who has spent nineteen years teaching this message. Nineteen years grading papers written about these ideas. Nineteen years spent preaching the sanctity of free speech.

And now imagine the moment when a student brings in a poem — a poem written by one of America’s most prominent poets, thinkers, and radicals, a poem that this student sought out on their own, discovered in a collection and wanted to share — and having to decide whether or not to censor that kid.

*

In my distant past, we were assigned to write an essay in class. One of those sticky, hot, almost-summer days much like this one. The syllabus had never changed. We read the books we had already studied. We glazed over. We felt ourselves giving fewer and fewer shits.

The essay question read: Was Randle Patrick McMurphy a good man or a bad one? Discuss. 

I read it five times, trying to figure out if it was some kind of joke, some kind of trick question. Randle McMurphy, the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is a complex character — a burly, brawling Irishman who gambles, fights, steals, instigates, has been found guilty of statutory rape. He’s loud, quick-witted, insubordinate. He’s also a hell of a good time, and his disregard for authority is celebrated by the inmates of the mental asylum where the novel is set. His antics bring a newfound, vibrant joy to the patients on the ward. The book’s clear villain is Nurse Ratched, the representation of authority and control — and yet, who has moments of humanity, who is no cardboard Disney villain but a very human tyrant, wielding her immense power out of fear for her own self-preservation.

There are no heroes, and there are no villains. That’s what the book is trying to tell us. I wrote that in my essay, handed it in early, rolling my eyes. I am sure I would cringe to read it now — I can almost guarantee it was full of the kind of snark that a bored, tired, angry eighteen year old kid would have written at one-thirty pm on a hot afternoon in a classroom with a broken air conditioner. Randle Patrick McMurphy is neither a good person nor a bad one. He is both. He is neither. No one is good or bad, we’re all just somewhere in the middle. This question is stupid. If you have to ask it, you have misunderstood the book.

This teacher called me up to her desk at the end of class, and in a low, angry voice, informed me that my tone was unacceptable. That I bet I thought I was pretty smart, smarter than her. That this kind of juvenile behavior would get me through high school, but just try it in college and you’ll be sorry. That this kind of thing wouldn’t fly there. That if I kept it up, how quickly I would fall and fail.

The high-strung version of me from a few months earlier would have apologized, would have gone out of my way to place myself back in this teacher’s favor.

The version of me who was punch-drunk on the words of Ken Kesey, who had experienced the thrill of challenging an authority figure, came dangerously close to saying something like, “Good to know, Professor Ratched.”

This teacher wasn’t inspiring. She wasn’t thrilling. She wasn’t the Robin Williams figure from Dead Poet’s Society that we wanted her to be. She wasn’t in love with the words on the page, at least not in the way that we were, not in the deep, hormonal, intensely passionate way that eighteen year olds can be. Maybe she was, once. I don’t know. But she was boring. She was safe. And we resented her for it.

She also once pressed a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale into my hands, a book that I had not yet read and that we would not cover in class, but a book that she knew I would love, a book that contained dangerous ideas, a book whose language would thrill and awaken me. For that, for that action alone: I have love for that woman.

There are no villains. There are no heroes, either.

*

I don’t know David Olio personally. David Olio: the teacher who has been fired. I don’t know him, but I wish I did.

I had inspiring teachers at various points of my life, teachers who cared, who corrected gently, who molded ideas, who pushed the right books into my hands at the right time, who challenged me in the best possible ways. Teachers who let me cry in their classrooms, teachers who taught me how to craft a sentence and how to articulate a thought, teachers who saw my desperate, gaping need to be loved and this desire to be understood, and who filled me with their wisdom, their understanding.

I also had a teacher who once reported me as absent for an entire semester because he thought my name was Megan. I also had a teacher who told me that he deducted ten points from my paper on Dorothy Parker because he had “no idea who that was.” I also had a teacher who told me that it was okay that I was bad at math, since I was a woman.

I don’t know David Olio, but I wish I did. Because I would love to talk about how strange it must have felt to read those sexually explicit words with teenagers in a classroom, young people who are old enough to vote and to be drafted into the military, who can operate cars and who can hold handguns but who are somehow deemed too vulnerable to be exposed to the idea that sex is pleasurable, that sex can be both masochistic and beautiful, that sex is a subject worthy of artistic creation and academic study. I would love to ask him if it was worth it — to lose his job over this incident. I would ask him: if he could go back in time, would he handle it differently?

I don’t know that I would have allowed that poem to be read in my classroom, if I were him. I don’t know. I don’t know that I would have had the ability to teach it — that I would be prepared for a frank discussion of sexual themes with students at, I’m sure, varying levels of maturity. I do know that I could easily teach a lesson on, say, Lord of the Flies and feel comfortable talking about that book’s extreme violence, and I hate what that says about me, that I could teach that book because others have done so for years. We give that book to kids in the ninth or tenth grade, a book where children murder one another. We can talk about what it means to stab a knife into someone’s flesh, to watch blood spurt, the frenzied action of removing another person’s life, about poor, poor Piggy.

Yet we can’t talk about what it means to stroke, to caress, to orgasm, to climax. We can’t talk about what it means to love and to express that love through sex, to lick and to need and to want and to desire and to have that desire fulfilled. We can’t talk about that. And I hate that that is true.

How is that possibly the thing that we are not allowed to talk about?

*

“The weight of the world is love.
Under the burden of solitude,
under the burden of dissatisfaction
the weight,the weight we carry is love. ”
Allen Ginsberg

*

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “The Weight We Carry Is Love, or: On Teaching.

  1. Thank you for this. I’m not a teacher, but I was the kid who always appreciated the good ones. The story of this teacher is a sad one, but your thoughts bring a beautiful light upon it; something others may not have seen.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

  2. Wow. What a beautiful tribute to those teachers who take chances and change our lives. I hope this piece gets the attention it deserves. I don’t often get choked up, but you reminded me of the handful of teachers that really made a difference. Thank you so much for that.

  3. A tribute to your teachers, the ones who inspired you, and for those that continue to fan the embers, push the boundaries and remember that art is not about being safe, but about being true.

  4. A wonderful tribute. As an English major ( who eventually wound up with a Ph.D. in American Studies) I had many of the types of teachers/professors you describe, and in my college teaching career I tried very hard (and usually successfully) to be inspiring for my students. I was in high school at a time when no work such as you mention – Ginsburg, Kesey, Ferlinghetti – would have been allowed in the classroom. Indeed, these giants were only beginning their careers. I didn’t experience their work until I was well into college. But I remember how powerfully their work affected me. Thank you for this essay.

  5. This is a tough one. As much of a fan as I am of Ginsberg, and I whole heartedly believe that high schoolers are way more grown up than we give them credit, I would never introduce this to a classroom of teens. Discussing it after a student brought it in, that’s a hard call. He must have known his job would be in jeopardy. The language is more than sexuallized, it’s pornographic. And I enjoy stylized sex and lust and porn, but we reserve that, as a society, for 18+. I don’t think it was “wrong” for him to discuss it. I don’t think it was “wrong” for the school to let him go. Kinda messy.

  6. Argh. When I read the poem, my first thought was, “Yes. Yikes. Wow. But what kind of idiot chooses this, out of all the millions of poems out there, to read to a bunch of teenagers???” Then you said that one of the kids brought it in and … ouch. What an impossible dilemma! I suppose it’s possible that the kid who brought it in was being a jerk, challenging his authority … and if that was the case, then the teacher should have pulled him up short, maybe used the opportunity for a discussion on “Why do we give a shit about what’s appropriate.” (Incidentally, “appropriate” has to be one of the deadest words in the English language – I just hate it! However, the lesson is necessary, unfortunately.) But if this was the kind of teacher who challenged kids to push boundaries, encouraged them to carpe diem, and the kid was sharing a poem that had touched him powerfully … Well, as Michaiah V said, he had to know he was putting his job on the line. But if that was the case, I have SO much respect for his integrity. SO SO much!

    Well, anyway. Forgive me for rambling on. A thought-provoking post, as always … Thank you.

  7. I tried to share this earlier, because you have expressed so well so many points about this story.

    Violence should not be more socially acceptable than sex. The latter is the life force, even when it doesn’t lead to actual reproduction and the former is a very human flaw. Both have their place in this world, both are part of our nature, but of the two, love should be more acceptable than hate.

    On a side note… I think you went to my high school… my little sister’s teacher told the class that the North Pole is the coldest place on earth, and the South Pole is the hottest. How do some of these people make it through college and earn teaching certificates?

  8. I honestly think that we protect teenagers too much from talking about sex, and do a terrible job of integrating it, slowly, into their lives so that they can grow up and make mature and respectful decisions about sharing sex and love. If we make it utterly taboo, it seems terrifying and yucky and weird and worse things can happen.

    My high school brought Allen Ginsburg in to read to a large audience of teenagers. He read William Blake’s “The Tyger,” admittedly, not one of his own poems. And he took the time to explain poetry and why it was like song and how it wasn’t too. Embarrassingly, he called me out for flirting with my boyfriend during the assembly, proving, I suppose, that I was a mixture of immaturity and insecurity, even as I felt mature enough to have read this poem and many of his others while I was still in high school.

  9. Passionate teachers are great, and far too few. That said, if any of my children’s teachers, passionate or not, spent class time reading and discussing a poem about anal sex written by a member of NAMBLA, I’d want their job too, and in some moods, their head on a pike.

  10. Beautiful.

    Teaching kids in Las Vegas who had been in gangs, had their own babies, and who had enjoyed more sex than I probably ever will in my own life made the conservative Mormon school board there seem like satire. We weren’t allowed to show movies over a G-rating without a permission slip. We weren’t allowed to show PG-13 movies at all. So we could read The Kite Runner and Macbeth and talk about violence and ambition and despair, but we could never show these things on the screen. My last year there before moving to China, I grew bold, and in my theater class, I showed a variety of PG or PG-13 films because I thought, “Screw it, I’ll be gone soon.” But we can’t all be so cavalier, especially those dedicated to sticking it out in the same city and town for the length of their careers. You expressed this dilemma beautifully.

    I will say that as a drama and literature teacher, I had a number of kids bring in violent or controversial poems to share. One was from a kid who had lived a violent life in which his uncles ran drug cartels and he saw men die before his eyes. Others, to be honest, were just looking for a reaction, for attention, and couldn’t have cared less about the actual poem. I have always been a teacher reticent to create conflict, and occasionally, a child just wanted to see if he could push me into allowing content in class for the sole purpose of proving I was too scared to confront him.

    Knowing the difference and having honest conversations with a kid requires discernment, care and caution. While I don’t condemn this teacher, I do know that there might have been a third way.

  11. Beautiful.

    Teaching kids in Las Vegas who had been in gangs, had their own babies, and who had enjoyed more sex than I probably ever will in my own life made the conservative Mormon school board there seem like satire. We weren’t allowed to show movies over a G-rating without a permission slip. We weren’t allowed to show PG-13 movies at all. So we could read The Kite Runner and Macbeth and talk about violence and ambition and despair, but we could never show these things on the screen. My last year there before moving to China, I grew bold, and in my theater class, I showed a variety of PG or PG-13 films because I thought, “Screw it, I’ll be gone soon.” But we can’t all be so cavalier, especially those dedicated to sticking it out in the same city and town for the length of their careers. You expressed this dilemma beautifully.

    I will say that as a drama and literature teacher, I had a number of kids bring in violent or controversial poems to share. One was from a kid who had lived a violent life in which his uncles ran drug cartels and he saw men die before his eyes. Others, to be honest, were just looking for a reaction, for attention, and couldn’t have cared less about the actual poem. I have always been a teacher reticent to create conflict, and occasionally, a child just wanted to see if he could push me into allowing content in class for the sole purpose of proving I was too scared to confront him.

    Knowing the difference and having honest conversations with a kid requires discernment, care and caution. While I don’t condemn this teacher, I do know that there might have been a third way.

    *If this is an accidental repeat, please delete! I am not sure if comments or moderated or the words just didn’t go through, because the Internet is a mess here in China.

  12. Brilliant. 2000 years of Euro Christian culture gets us to “My parents allow me violence but not sex…” It’s a tragic way to live. Nice work here.

  13. I often save the long posts to read at a later date. This is one and I am glad I did! Tough subject, but inspiring post. In some things there are “no heroes, no villains”….there are still many things we have not figured out in this world. Thank you for writing this post.

  14. Wow. You touch on so many fantastic points. Personally, I think I would have been much more interested in the literature courses I took in high school had we covered edgier material rather than the same tired old classics. I was not exposed to the Beats until my mid-to-late twenties when a co-worker introduced me to Kerouac and Ginsberg, and having read them, as well as some Burroughs, I can say that I wish I had done so earlier. The last Ginsberg quote is nothing less than spectacular and absolutely spot on!

  15. what a story… and what a spin when you shed light on your own experience in English AP. I have to admit when i read the poem to myself, much like other who have commented, i thought “what idiot would read this with his students”… but within a few short sentences, i totally got it, I too would like to meet this teacher.

    incredible post. thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s