The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Burning Bridges

Bridges of booksLast month, a Jefferson County, Colorado school board proposed modifying its Advanced Placement U.S. History course. “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” the proposal stated. The new requirements would “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.”

[pullquote]“Stories mean more when they are in the words of real people,”[/pullquote]
Civil disobedience, it appears, would not be part of the curriculum.

We killed thousands of our countrymen in an effort to kill slavery. A century later, using civil disobedience rather than all out war, we finally gave African-Americans full citizenship (sort of). The Boston Tea Party, women’s suffrage, and numerous efforts to create fair housing and block potentially dangerous environmental programs, have punctuated the course of U.S. history. Yet some among us would “promote patriotism” by erasing that part of our story, telling our youth to sit back and obey the law.

Books take us to other places and cultures and, sometimes, into situations we would rather not examine. A Texas school board last month celebrated Banned Books Week by eliminating from its schools books such as “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison, and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. Some parents said their kids should be protected from abusive depictions.

A few years ago, a nearby school board considered banning “Kaffir Boy,” an autobiography of a black youth who grew up in Apartheid-governed South Africa. Within the tale was one page on which was described a situation involving young boys, adult men and Vaseline, in a shack away from public observation.

Some parents thought their 16 and 17-year-old offspring should not be exposed to such images. Better, it was thought, to pretend such things did not happen than to deal with any need to explain or correct the situation.

Recently, a discussion arose at a Gettysburg Area School Board meeting over whether to allow certain books to be suggested for reading by students in an Advanced Placement literature course. “Ask Me No Questions,”  by Marina Budhosis, is a story of a young Muslim girl from Bangladesh, in this country on 9-11, and how her family was treated in a society that only knew of “Muslim” with the suffix “extremist” attached. “Stick Figure, A Diary of my former self,” is an at times graphic – in images and language – “diary” of a ’tween-age girl’s attempt to live up to advertising images depicting skinny young girls as the ideal. And in “The Trap,” the storyteller’s grandfather went on the ice to tend his traps in the frozen Alaskan wilderness, and did not return home.

According to newspaper reports, some of the books’ opponents objected to language their young men and women would read. One person of my acquaintance pointed out the Budhos’ family’s visa had expired, as though that explained the animosity shown them by the non-law enforcement community.

“Stories mean more when they are in the words of real people,” a high school junior told me recently. Such stories, she said, hold much more significance than an adult standing at the front of a classroom.

One of my favorite stories about censorship is “Fahrenheit 451,” by Ray Bradbury, about a fireman whose job is to burn books. The title reflects the temperature at which, Bradbury believed in 1953,  paper auto-combusts: 451F. Books are often at the top of the list of resources marked for elimination by those whose subjects seek freedom of thought.

Books are bridges to cultures and experiences we otherwise might never experience. We need more such bridges, not fewer.

We claim to seek other life among the cosmos. A good start would be learning about the multiplicity of cultures here on our home planet.


  1. Bah Humbug!! Kids need to learn. Reading a book in class and discussing it is much softer than learning it in real life. I’m certain that many of the high school students, and younger, have already experienced some of those stories, at least in part. Let them learn how others coped – or where the slippery slope can take them. Are we becoming a nation of uneducated people wearing blinders?

    Children see worse on television and at the movies where violence seems to be the word of the day. Even “Toy Story” has violence and abuse, as do all fairy tales. Let’s not even go to “Transformers” that are promoted for pre-schoolers.

    • John

      November 15, 2014 at 22:36

      I agree, Sharon. And add to the softer means of experience the ability of books to immerse us, in ways movies, abbreviated and action-focused as most are, in cultures we might otherwise never experience. It’s difficult to grasp another person’s experience without knowing it’s source.

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