Sex and high school English

Reading Jerzy Kosinski‘s Steps for 12th grade English sent me into a deep (and perversely welcome) funk. The book reflected back, in a more grotesque way than Lorrie Moore’s stories did later, my suspicion that sexual relationships between men and women were inevitably bound for disaster. It also sent me off in search of Kosinski’s other work.

I thought of this history when I read Matthew Cheney‘s fascinating essay, “What Is Appropriate,” about teaching explicit material to high-school literature students.

The day before this discussion I had gotten into an argument with an administrator about a friend of mine, a writer who had just published a novel with a major publisher and was coming to our school to speak to the entire student body about her novel and herself.

The novel contains, near the middle, a scene in which three teenagers, all around eighteen years old, engage in a ménage à trios. It is an important scene in the book, one that reveals much about the characters and determines their fates for the rest of the novel.

I had given a copy of the book to the administrator, who, after he had started reading it, had been enthusiastic and suggested some classes he thought might benefit from using it.

Then he stopped me at dinner that night and said, “You didn’t warn me that it’s pornographic.”

I laughed.

“We can’t use it in classes,” he said.

“You’re joking,” I said. He is a man with a fine sense of humor, and is someone I’d never thought of as prudish.

“No, I’m not joking,” he said. “We have responsibilities.”

“Responsibilities?” I said. Our ideas of what was responsible practice, and who we were responsible toward, seemed to be diverging.

“And also,” he said, “we won’t be selling it in the bookstore, and she can’t bring copies to sell herself.”

I sat down with him. “So are we going to uninvite her?”

“No,” he said. “But we can’t appear to approve of her book as appropriate reading for teenagers. We can celebrate her, but not her book.”

I was silent. He said it seemed like I disagreed. I said I disagreed so vehemently I barely had the words to rationalize my feelings. I said his decision felt ridiculous to me, anti-intellectual, provincial. Here we had the opportunity for our students to spend time with an esteemed professional writer, but we would not provide them with a way to buy her book.

“They can get her book,” he said. “We just don’t want to provide it for them.”

Please don’t stop with this wimpy little excerpt. Read the whole thing. Also, on Kosinski? Start with Being there.


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