English Literature and Censorship: On Allen Ginsberg’s Place in the Classroom

 Allen Ginsberg, photo via  The New York Times


Time—1 hour


Read the following passage carefully before you choose your answers.

AP English teacher David Olio just lost his job to blatant censorship. Not to be so ostensively opinionated before even unpacking the piece of news I intend to cover, but also to do exactly that. As a young gay man who just a year ago graduated from high school, AP exams and SAT vocabulary words still fresh in my mind, I feel, just a tiny bit, like maybe I have a reason to be heated right now. But before I delineate personal opinions, here is the known narrative, uncensored.

At South Windsor High School, a student introduced to his teacher a poem he wished to read and discuss in class. Because the teacher is a teacher, he decided that he would teach this poem, but the South Windsor School District regarded this as a bad move (No teaching allowed.) This is perhaps, or definitely, because the poem in question was Allen Ginsberg’s Please Master”—an extremely graphic account of a homosexual encounter, The Daily Beast published in its coverage of the poem lesson-turned-debacle. Extremely. The poem is, without a doubt, quite sexually explicit, but come now, let’s consider all the potential factors that sparked this unnecessary resignation of an award-winning, 19-year veteran teacher. (NBC says he quit. I say he was fired. Mr. Olio’s resignation was, after all, the result of the school board’s decision to persecute him.) 

First factor: Mr. Olio is a poor teacher or lacks academic or moral integrity. This is probably not the case. In 2009, Mr. Olio received the John McCormack Excellence in Teaching Award, CEA, of highest honor in Connecticut. Also notable in his star-studded resume are the Charles Swain Book Award in 2006; his serving as President, Executive Board member, or at the very least archivist for the New England Association of Teachers of English; and his co-authoring of a book, entitled Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines, in 2004. More recently, as far as his involvement, Mr. Olio designed and constructed district-wide diversity programs; designed, wrote, taught, and evaluated on online creative writing course; and served as PAC Chair of South Windsor Education Association. To name a few things.

Second factor: South Windsor School District is upset not by the sexually explicit imagery, but it is upset by the sexually explicit homosexual imagery in Please Master. Allen Ginsberg was openly homosexual and, as leading figure of the Beat Generation, opposed sexual oppression and innocuous euphemisms, meaning lots of sexoften homosexualin his poetry. But where are the what-about-the-children cries when another teacher included the screenplay of Stand By Me in her course curriculum? To quote Vern, one of our four beloved, heterosexual boys who just doesn’t know any better, Annette’s tits are great! There is an exchange in the movie devoted to discussing a young woman’s breasts, an actress from the Mickey Mouse Club no less. But is this inappropriate, too much for a group of high school students? And what about the casual talkand eventual witnessof a dead body amongst the four boys? Or do we only draw the line at a man saying penis in a similarly sexual context? After all, they’re just curious young boys!

“South Windsor School District is upset not by the sexually explicit imagery, but it is upset by the sexually explicit homosexual imagery in “Please Master.” ”

Teachers fall victim to administrative helicoptering more frequently than todays typical progressive liberal (probably read: you) would like to believe. From newer, YA works, such as The Hunger Games trilogy and Stephen Chboskys Perks of Being a Wallflower, to classics such as Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass and Alice Walkers The Color Purple, pretty much any pairing of letters and punctuation that extends past the boundaries of a traditional, conservative perception of human sexuality faces scrutiny. Beyond sexuality, though, one particular example I may cite, reported by the American Library Association as one of the most challenged classics of all time, is To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper Lees Pulitzer Prize-winning work has, since its publishing, faced criticism for its racial slurs, profanity, and blunt dialogue about rape. From 1966, when a parent in Hanover, Virginia claimed that use of rape as a plot device was immoral, to the 1990s, when school districts in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia attempted to ban the book for its excessive racial slurs, Mockingbird has gone through the wringer of literary censorship. And yet, despite all this controversy, we see To Kill A Mockingbird as common course material for several English classes at South Windsor High School. So, according to the South Windsor School District, a casual discussion of rape and racism is tolerable, but God forbid the students hear about the Godless Gays.

Allow me to quote my all-time fave, Chimamanda Adichie, who, in the recent The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, that I was fortunate enough to attend, said, The fear of causing offense, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish, and that in public conversations about America’s problems…the goal is not truth. The goal is comfort. For some reason it’s still uncomfortable for many Americans to support homosexuality beyond closed doors.

 South Windsor High School, photo via Wikipedia
South Windsor High School, photo via Wikipedia

And third factor: Mr. Olio hired this student to ask about this specific poem so that Olio could finally indoctrinate the entire South Windsor school district’s youth into a life of homosexual prostitution, drugs, and Satanic worship.

Let’s just say I lost brain cells writing factor #3.

The entire premise of Mr. Olio’s firing is ridiculous. His being placed on indefinite, unpaid leave by the district is ridiculous. And his later termination proceedings only seventy-two hours later are ridiculous. An educator who has clearly devoted his life to enriching the minds of his students, who spends his time thinking about them, writing about them, and insuring that his students receive the most beneficial education they can, has no reason to face resignation under the pretense of gratuitously sexual poetry. South Windsor Moms and Dads need a reality check. If this man, who is by all means the cookie-cutter image of teacher perfection, is not safe in his profession, then what teacher is? How can this school district turn their back on him after nineteen years of hard work and dedication?

I sympathize with Mr. Olio, and I imagine he’s having difficulty understanding whether or not these people ever trusted him with these students in the first place. As an aspiring educator myself, incidents like these disappoint and enrage me. Without words to express ourselves, we are caged, and we are not ourselves. Ginsberg said himself, Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does. And if the poet can’t do, who can?  

1. Which of the following best describes the rhetorical function of the passage’s conclusive use of multiple-choice questions?

(A) It prepares our young readers for future AP exams.

(B) It exaggerates the author’s exasperation with the issue at hand.

(C) It adds character to the blog post.

(D) It impresses the author’s superiors.

2. In the beginning of the second paragraph, the author uses what literary device to accentuate his feelings on the school district’s reaction to the teaching of Ginsberg’s poem?

(A) A simile (or a metaphorwhich is which?)

(B) A noun.

(C) Pointed irony.

(D) Personification.

3. The author’s tone in the passage as a whole is best described as

(A) Vaguely pissed off.

(B) Disheartened and saddened.

(C) Confused as to why the same people who support marriage equality continue to fear overt or explicit homosexual imagery as if it is more inappropriate than heterosexual imagery.

(D) All of the above.



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