Censorship in the High School: Missing the Point About What We Deem Offensive

 A special-to-Combustus column by poet and educator, John L. Stanizzi ~

 

John L Stanizzi

Poet and educator John L Stanizzi

 

 

A

 pril. National Poetry Month. The month when so many high school English teachers who otherwise don’t pay a great deal of attention to poetry become very enthusiastic.

 

The high school where Stanizzi taught up until this year.

The high school where Stanizzi taught up until this fall.

 

In April of 2004, a colleague of mine read about an activity called Paper the Hallways with Poems. The premise was to have each student from every English class find a poem they really liked and write that poem on poster paper, complete with their own artistic interpretation of the work. For several days the rugs in the English department sparkled with glitter, the air smelled of permanent marker, and the rooms were littered with glossy cut-outs from magazines. Students and teachers were actually engaged in the pleasurable work of reading and thinking about poetry. It all seemed so creative; industrious kids were lying all over the floors working on their poetry posters, as excited teachers moved among them, gushing words of encouragement.

 

Students at the high school where Stanizzi taught up until this year.

Students at the high school where Stanizzi taught up until this fall.

 

I approached the project a little differently. I told my kids that if they chose to do this project, their poet would have to get my approval first. I saw this activity as a chance to teach the kids about some of our very best poets, contemporary and classic, poets we might not otherwise have a chance to read. This time around I would not accept Jim Morrison or Jewel or Tupac. I wanted them to do a little investigating, and maybe find out who the Poet Laureate of Connecticut was, or who the National Poet Laureate was. Who had received the Nobel Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize? That kind of thing.

 

John L. Stanizzi with some of his high school students

John L. Stanizzi with former high school students

 

Among my students, three young men stood out gloriously from among the rest. The boys were – coincidentally – all named Mike. Mike L., Mike L., and Mike T. – three of my most…..ummmm…shall we say, spirited young men.

 

John L. Stanizzi with some of his students dressod for Halloween

John L. Stanizzi with some of his students dressed for Halloween

 

Mike L.’s dad was a drinker, and their relationship was as volatile as it was distant. Mike was a terrific artist, and so he began his poetry project by painting an intense self-portrait, a painting that I felt must surely be a reflection of how he was feeling. His eyes were wild and sad, his head was thrown back, and his mouth seemed to be gasping for help. It was extraordinary. In the lower left of his self-portrait, on a 3’ X 3’ piece of poster paper, Mike copied Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse,” always a favorite among my students.

 

This Be The Verse
By Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

~ Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems.

 

Then there was Mike T., an angry kid ready to drop the gloves in a flash; however, he was also tremendously funny, a fact that worked in his favor those frequent times when he’d be driving me, and everyone else in the class, crazy. Mike had fallen in love with Billy Collins’ poem, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” and he was incredibly excited about his poster idea. He would blow up April’s Playboy Centerfold and paste her onto his poster paper, sans her head. He would then take that famous picture of Emily that we all know, enlarge it, remove her head, and place her head on top of Miss April’s body. He was a master; it was meticulous and looked exactly like a naked Emily Dickinson, with a surprising body, and looking a bit detached. Is that a slight hint of a smile, Emily? His finishing touch was to print in perfect lettering, Billy’s poem, right down the middle of Emily’s naked belly. It was brilliant.

 

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes
by Billy Collins

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

 

I had known “the other” Mike L. since he was a little boy. I had his older brother, John, in a senior English class about eight years earlier, and little brother Mike would sometimes show up in my room behaving in that easy, humorous way that puts you at ease and makes you feel as though you’ve known the kid your whole life. And of course, that made it much easier when Mike grew up, got to high school, and showed up in my classroom again, this time as a senior.

Mike had never, ever lost his goofy sense of humor, or his joy in playing practical jokes, not even after his beloved brother John was killed one morning driving home from a third shift job he had taken while attending community college.
Mike, who could not draw, drew a big, bulky blue cow with white spots that looked like clouds. She was grinning widely, and covered his entire piece of poster paper. Then he printed his poem in 14-point font, small against his big cow. He had cut out the little rectangle-of-a-poem, and glued it to one of the cow’s large white spots.

 

My Very First Time
by Emily Wimetal

The sky was dark
The moon was high
All alone just she and I
Her hair was soft
Her eyes were blue
I knew just what
She wanted to do
Her skin so soft
Her legs so fine
I ran my fingers
Down her spine
I didn’t know how
But I tried my best
I started by placing
My hands on her breast
I remember my fear
My fast beating heart
But slowly she spread
Her legs apart
And when I did it
I felt no shame
All at once
The white stuff came
At last it’s finished
It’s all over now
My first time ever
At milking a cow!

 

I was absolutely delighted and impressed and proud of these three boys who rarely bought in to the “school” scene. This time they had not only bought in but, in my opinion, they simply surpassed everyone else by a huge margin. I could not wait to present their work as part of the Paper the Hallways with Poems celebration of National Poetry Month.

The halls became a crowd of teenagers, laughing and poking fun at one another’s posters as they taped them to the walls. And the result was just as I expected. Here were the “great” writers with their unforgettable poems. There were poems by Alien Ant Farm, Godsmack, Sepultura, Megadeth, Slipknot. There was the occasional Pink, Jewel, and Tori Amos. The war between Biggie and Pac was resurrected. There was Poe’s Raven, Frost’s snowy woods, and lots of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. And of course there was Mike L., Mike T., and Mike L.

I was delighted for them. They were so proud of themselves and their work.

The next morning when I got in ~ very early ~ I took a stroll around the halls. When I came to the place on the walls where The Mikes poems should have been, I saw a bare wall. No self-portrait, no naked Emily, no blue and white cow. Had The Mikes thought twice, commiserated, and removed their work? Had the tape given way and the posters been tossed by the custodian? I didn’t get it.

When the kids began to arrive, I put out my APB: Find out what happened to those posters. Usually, when I asked the kids to do something for me out there on the streets (the hallways) they would come back with information within hours. Today was no different.

Before the end of first period I had my information:

This was no student vandal or loose tape. This was much worse. This was the work of one of my colleagues. So offended by these three posters, she took it upon herself to cleanse the hallway of this filth. There were posters with guns and bombs and all sorts of violent language and images. But nothing quite as disturbing or vulgar as these three pieces, I guess. One of the kids told me that she had put them in the big garbage barrel in the hall, so I went to investigate. There they were, rolled up together, in the trash.

I removed them and taped them back up, but decided to not confront my colleague about the incident.

When I arrived the next morning, the wall was bare again. I immediately rushed back to the trash can, and there they were.

I taped them up again.

This time I would go speak to my colleague.

Her response to my query? “How can you expect me to teach these kids not to be foul and vulgar when you’re promoting such things?”

I was stunned by her logic, and immediately headed for our Principal’s office.

His response to the incident was quick and clear. “Take them down. This is a high school.”

I attempted to defend The Mikes, but he was having none of it. The posters were to come down. Immediately.

Anticipating The Mikes’ anger, I began to consider ways I might channel it. I wasn’t going to stop it. In fact, I wasn’t even going to try to stop it. Instead, I was going to try and direct their resentment so that this entire experience might teach them something constructive.

We had just finished our study of Walt Whitman; the kids always love Whitman, the way he looked, certain poems, his amazing life.

 

Poet Walk Whitman

Poet Walk Whitman

 

I always spend some time on Whitman’s response to Emerson telling him to tone down the sexual imagery; Whitman responded, “No.” Later he would write, “The dirtiest of books is the expurgated book.”

The kids always loved Whitman’s convictions, his sense of right and wrong, often more than the poems themselves, so I decided I would use this particular quote to help The Mikes cope.

Of course by this time, word had spread around the school: Miss X had taken down The Mikes’ poems and dumped them in the trash. What would The Mikes do? Were they going to take that?

I sat at my computer, opened Word, clicked on Landscape, clicked on Britannic Bold, 72-pt. font, and typed…

THE DIRTIEST BOOK IS THE EXPURGATED BOOK.
~WALT WHITMAN

 

I printed it, and proceeded to the copy room where I made 2,000 copies. I called The Mikes in and told them the plan. Drop this message all over the entire school…the hallways, stairs, classrooms, offices, cafeteria, bathrooms. In the meantime, I’d take their poems and staple them to the corkboard in my classroom, where they would stay for the rest of the year. What a glorious day! The Mikes were proudly strewing the paper everywhere and explaining Walt’s words to anyone who asked. I was in my classroom, looking at their wonderful work hanging on the wall, and anticipating a call from the Principal.

When the call came, our conversation was brief. With a perceptible smile in his voice he told me we had made our point clearly, and would we mind, after a little while, going around and picking up the papers. “Gladly,” I said.

Well, the incident became legendary. The Mikes took their poems home at the end of the year. I had a very difficult time being in the same room as my colleague. And we, the kids and me, learned a valuable but frustratingly disappointing lesson about just how backwards the world can be.

 

~ John L. Stanizzi

 

John L. Stanizzi with some of his students

John L. Stanizzi with some of his students

 

 

 

Further Notes

Published poet John L. Stanizzi taught high school English at Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut from 1992 up until he retired this past June. Stanizzi now serves as Adjunct English Professor at Manchester Community College.

Visit Amazon.com to see the latest books available for John Stanizzi.

 

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