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 absurdityand deathwhenever he performsabove the headsof his audiencethe poet like an acrobatclimbs on rimeto a high wire of his own makingand balancing on eyebeamsabove a sea of facespaces his wayto the other side of dayperforming entrechatsand sleight-of-foot tricksand other high theatricsand all without mistakingany thingfor what it may not beFor he’s the super realistwho must perforce perceivetaut truthbefore the taking of each stance or stepin his supposed advancetoward that still higher perchwhere Beauty stands and waitswith gravityto start her death-defying leapAnd hea little charleychaplin manwho may or may not catchher fair eternal formspreadeagled in the empty airof 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