Banning books isn't about helping students
The morning after the Parkland shooting, my students eyes are narrowed, arms are crossed across their chests, bodies sunken into their chairs. They're making themselves smaller, keeping themselves safe.
Twenty years ago as a freshman, I stood in my living room ready to run from the TV screen where bodies fell out of windows at Columbine High School. Here we are again and again and again.
They need to talk.
"Why haven't we done anything about gun control?" my student asks.
It gets quiet. The quiet resonates with fear and betrayal by those in power who are supposed to protect them.
In this country, we can't ban AR-15s that make it easy for a teen to murder, but we can ban books. And my school district did.
The week before the Florida shooting, the Deputy Superintendent of Beaverton School District, Steve Phillips, overrode the decision of a hearing committee to keep "Stick" by Andrew Smith in our schools and instead banned the book due to inappropriate content and vulgar language.
Inappropriate content is social media feeds with live videos of our nation's youth laying dead in their schools. Vulgar language is calling teen shooters a "savage sickos" and "psychos" when they are victims themselves. Victims of broken systems, inadequate access to mental health services, absent parents holding down two jobs or with opioid addiction, and politicians who divide us, making them think guns define who we are as Americans.
Meanwhile in Beaverton, two more books have hearings next month.
The danger of banning books containing sexual violence, homosexuality or any human experience is that it justifies banning books with similar content.
"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson is about a freshman going silent after she is raped at a party. One year, after my students read this book, a student filled with vivacious energy in September who had begun to collapse into herself, came to me with tears in her eyes.
"I want to tell you something... I am Melinda (the protagonist). That book gave me courage to come forward about what happened to me and heal."
A second student, who is gay, made a nearly fatal suicide attempt in October after his parents shunned him when he came out. He is now living with a foster family. I asked him what's helping him get through. "Books," he said, "they help me feel less alone." "The Hate You Give" by Angie Thomas is one of his favorites and was banned in a Texas school district last year.
A third student — whose father faces deportation at the end of the month and who works two jobs to support his wife, my student and two younger sisters — finds escape in "If I Grow Up" by Todd Strasser. My male students of color, who often struggle to find books that they connect with, pass it around like treasure. I can't keep it on my shelves.
Andrew Smith, the author of "Stick," when interviewed about the ban in Beaverton said, "When somebody just comes in, blocks, interferes with a kid's access to information or viewpoints, that's absolutely the opposite of what we need right now."
English teachers refer to books as windows and mirrors. They reflect our students' experiences and allow them access to new perspectives that build empathy. And in a nation where kids are killing kids, what more can we hope for students but to become more empathetic and connected.
Do you remember a book that changed you? Helped you reach out rather than retreating into yourself? Can you imagine what your life would be without it?
I wouldn't want to. And our students should never have to find out.
Jacqueline Fitzgerald teaches English
Language Arts for 10th- and 12th-graders
at Westview High School in Beaverton.