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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In Other Words: You Can Ban Books But You Can’t Ban Curiosity or Ideas

I was mortified as I sat in the principal’s office with my parents. The principal was pleasant and professional. My parents, well, mostly my mother, was livid over a book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that we were asked to read for high school English class. It was a bestseller and contained some language but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard - or even used. This should have been a teachable moment.

You know the book or the movie. The story examines one man’s journey into the world of psychiatric prison hospitals. I was enjoying it until my mother discovered it. She exploded. She thought it was trash and it wasn’t appropriate. She yelled at me for reading it. She yelled at my father for me reading it. She called the school and yelled at the principal. The result was that I didn’t have to read the book. Other accommodations would be made. I read it anyway because, you know, once something is forbidden, it becomes desirable. And that is, interestingly enough, the theme for lots of famous books.

I have gone back to examine that uncomfortable meeting over the years. There was much I didn’t know. My mother didn’t say much to me directly, but from the conversations she had with my father and the principal I gathered this. My mother was trying to protect me from the temptations of the adult world which was ironic since she read those torrid nurse romance novels that she regularly bought from the drugstore. She also thought that I couldn’t handle such a book. Still not sure what that means. We had a world full of misfits and slightly deranged people running through our life all of the time so I was confused by that. She was aghast that we would read a book with “that language” in it. If I were to repeat some of my mother’s cursing, you would blush. Once again, I don’t get it.

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What I do understand is that my mother wasn’t ready for her oldest child to enter adulthood, to move beyond her control. And that was what she wanted - control. I felt bad for my teacher, a man I admired. He wanted to challenge us. My mother wanted to control us.  But we cannot control anyone. And that’s the problem.

We can only control our actions and reactions. As hard as some people try, we ultimately cannot control anyone else. So if an idea, a word, a book, a song, a dance, a food, a topic, a question or anything is forbidden or dangerous, then you can bet that a market will arise for it. The surest way to remove a stigma is to normalize it.

Censorship never works. Never. Of course, there are age appropriate movies, books, and entertainment and discretion should always be in play. But I am not one to deny information from anyone. I have always answered every question as delicately and appropriately as I can.

My parents blew a teaching opportunity. We could have discussed the book. We could have discussed lots of things, but we didn’t. They shouted, threw a fit, and, as a result, made me want to read every banned book out there. And I did.

People fear a lot of silly things - getting peanut butter stuck on the roof of their mouths or the number 13 - but that fear disappears when it is confronted, discussed, and examined. I’d hate to see parents and teachers blow a teachable moment because they felt uncomfortable. When you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the world opens up to you.

Banned Books Week is September 23 - 29.

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