On Teaching the Unmentionables

The English Teacher’s Dilemma

Every English teacher comes upon times in which he or she is faced with a text (or a section of a text) that some people would deem “inappropriate”, either for the grade level or for society at large. Sometimes this problem is easily solved: when dealing with the prolific use of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn or in the works of Ernest Hemingway, the teacher can easily explain that the word does not render the authors or even their characters racist, but rather that the word was commonly used in the time periods in which the narratives are set, since it was not yet considered a racial slur at the time of writing. But sometimes the problem is less easily solved: what, for instance, does a teacher do when confronted with the blatantly obscene sexual references in Romeo and Juliet, or the unabashedly foul-mouthed first-person narration of Catcher in the Rye? The teacher cannot justly teach either text by omitting these elements, and the students will rambunctiously broach the subjects in class if the teacher does not calmly do so first. Thus, in order to avoid leaving any “gaping holes” in the texts, and to undermine any classroom disruptions, the teacher must broach the subjects with his or her students. Though many people argue that teaching so-called inappropriate material to adolescent students is unethical, I argue that, in fact, the opposite is true: it would be highly unethical of me to ignore these delicate subjects, for to do so would be to rob the students of the “big picture” — what these subjects mean in their contexts. Censorship in general does nothing but send to kids the highly unethical message that context does not matter and that it is acceptable to judge something — or worse, someone — based on first-impressions.

Since context is everything, it is important to first set up the historical context. Thus, each of my literature units begin with a discussion or an activity — in some cases, even large-scale research papers — regarding the time periods and the cultures in which these texts were written. In so doing, I can nip in the bud small problems, such as the use of the “n”-word in Huckleberry Finn or many Hemingway works. When we get to, say, Mercutio’s bawdy discourse in II.iv of Romeo and Juliet, I can point out that his dirty jokes reflect the strongly masculine man-to-man jibing that was so prevalent in Shakespeare’s world. By having vital discussions such as this, the kids realize that these “unmentionables” in the texts are just characterizational devices and fit right in with the historical contexts. Including the so-called inappropriate sections of the texts in the daily lesson plans does not in any way, shape, or form teach the kids that repeating this language or behavior is appropriate. That is why class discussions are so vital: if I were to ignore the unmentionables, the kids would pick up on them anyway — THEY ARE INFINITELY MORE ASTUTE THAN MOST ADULTS OUT THERE GIVE THEM CREDIT FOR! — but they would not have me at hand to tell them something like, “Unlike Huck, we live obviously live in a time period where using the ‘n’ word is offensive,” or “Mercutio may make sex sound like it is something everyone should recklessly do, but remember: he is just blowing hot air.” People who are so quick to ban books fail to realize that teachers actually talk to their students.

Proving the Book-Banners Wrong

The most ironic thing about having taught Romeo and Juliet for so many years now is that few adults out there actually realize how scandalous the text is. I am sure many people remember the brief nude scene in Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation, but beyond that, the text itself seems to be seen as tamer than Nancy Drew. Take, for instance, this quote from “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools,” an ultra-rightwing [and thus agenda-driven] parent group that does not understand literature or how English teachers teach texts:

Shakespeare’s characters do not go through undeveloped, implausible, unresolved, vulgar, sexually charged, and otherwise morally repugnant storylines as do so many of the required books. As Shakespeare’s characters work through their humorous, tragic, or dramatic roles, they teach us a tremendous amount about the art of creative writing. No, we do not oppose Shakespeare. We consider his works to be a cornerstone of a fundamentally sound high school education in English literature.

CLASS makes no bones about banning books so obviously controversial as Catcher in the Rye or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but what they fail to realize is that Romeo and Juliet DO, in fact, “go through undeveloped, implausible, unresolved, vulgar, sexually charged, and otherwise morally repugnant” events as they progress towards their suicides: the storyline is quite undeveloped, particularly that regarding the Montagues (e.g., we suddenly learn at the end of Act V that Lady Montague died “of a broken heart” upon learning her son was banished); that Romeo and Juliet would fall in love so passionately and marry within less than twenty-four hours of having met is implausible to the extreme; Friar Lawrence, the mastermind behind Juliet’s feigned death, confesses but is let off the hook, thus leaving his punishment and absolution quite unresolved; Mercutio and the Nurse are as vulgar as they come; Romeo and Juliet are very obviously sexually charged (and Mercutio might even be sexually charged towards Romeo, if one reads the part correctly). Enough said. My friends over at CLASS are irreparably ignorant: they do not read either the books they ban or the books they promote.

But is Romeo and Juliet‘s apparent “vulgarity” any reason to ban it from the classroom? Certainly not. The play makes for a linguistically vivid and engaging first experience with Shakespeare for young people. Should I just not explain the vulgarity? As I have said before, the troubles associated with this are far more problematic than the troubles associated with having a simply discussion about the unmentionables. Thus, Romeo and Juliet stays put, as does the naughtiness.

My Philosophy

I have no political agenda in my book selections or in the ways I teach texts. My friends at CLASS and at PABBIS, too [“Parents Against Bad Books in Schools”–another wonderfully propagandistic, agenda-driven organization] would quickly argue that I have an evident leftwing bias in my teaching since I choose to teach the unmentionables. But what they fail to realize is that I do not promote the unmentionables; rather, I promote conscience. Is not life about choices –doing what is right opposed to what is wrong? Because adolescence is a particularly developmentally appropriate time to drive this lesson home, I use my umentionables-ridden texts to illustrate the lesson. Of course, I do not stand before the class with Romeo and Juliet held aloft, proclaiming that sex should only occur in marriages, but I do often ask kids what choices the characters have before them–which is the moral choice and which is the immoral choice? Which is the socially acceptable choice and which is socially unacceptable [“back then” and these days]? In this way, not only do I mold clear-thinking textual analysts, but I also [help to] mold clear-thinking democratic citizens.

Correct me if I’m, wrong, but isn’t that the point of American education?

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One response to “On Teaching the Unmentionables

  1. If a teacher tries to teach something like Romeo and Juliet, and sugarcoats it so that the play is “appropriate material” for school(meaning no vulgarity and certain scenes are left out of the teaching), then it just screws us over in the long run when it comes to our exposure of literature. My cousin had a teacher at her school who tried to teach Romeo and Juliet without the vulgarity, and with a few important scenes and lines left out(because of vulgarity). No one understood the play, because of the scenes that were omitted, and in the end, a few students, including my cousin, walked out of the room, proclaiming that they wanted a different way for their teacher to teach Romeo and Juliet.
    I plan on becoming a English teacher in the future, so reading this gave me some ideas about how I might deal with something like this.

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