I recently went to a local high school and talked to a few english lit classes. It was my first time, and I have to admit, I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, whether the teens would be interested in what I had to say, and whether I could refrain from cursing, talking about sex and drugs, or questioning the authority of the kind people who had invited me in the first place.
On that last point, the answer is, apparently, no. I tried. I really did. But there is really no school-safe phrase that is the equivalent of “shit sandwich”, Lord Byron really was a sex addict and habitual opiate user, and some school systems really do prevent teachers from using the books that would probably speak most immediately to the experiences of their students.
Some of the kids were interested in what I had to say about Struts & Frets and finding your passion. Most of the kids were interested in what I had to say about Misfit and not fitting in. All of the kids were interested when I described the works of Ellen Hopkins and Coe Booth. I told them these books were about them, about their experiences, and that these books did not pull punches or sugarcoat anything. I said, “If your teacher tried to bring these books into your classroom, she could get fired”. Notebooks and pens appeared out of nowhere and they scribbled down the names of this forbidden literary fruit. “How do you spell that?”…”“C-O-E”…
I think if you asked any of my teachers, none of them would have called me a “bad kid”. Except maybe my 1st Grade teacher, Ms. Spiers. But she was the kind of teacher who yanked you out of your chair by the ear and dragged you over to the dunce corner, so I don’t really count her. Anyway, I was a pretty good kid and never caused trouble for its own sake. But when something happened that I believed to be wrong, there was no threat of punishment that could dissuade me from acting. As you might imagine, being a creative kid in an All Boys Jesuit Catholic Prep School, there were plenty of times I disagreed with the establishment.
Some of those times, it was just teenage angst, “Rebel Without A Cause” kinds of issues. Like the time my mother gave me a white linen tie and some fabric markers and I drew Biblical scenes on it with a big question mark and the word THINK. Heh, the priests hated that one.
But sometimes it was more than just punk rock angst. Like when my female friends were repeatedly verbally harassed in the parking lot after school on their way to play practice by the star athletes of the school and nothing was done about it. It was only my pigheaded, reckless, stupid refusal to keep quiet and behave that changed things. I got a week’s detention and invoked the ire of both the Dean of Students and my own Drama Teacher, which felt to me like betrayal. I complained bitterly about it to my mother (a 60’s era hippie who quietly sympathized, in her own way, with my rebellious nature). Her advice was to let them know that one of the victims was the daughter of the OSU President, which was true. The next week, the same Dean of Students who had chewed me out for “willfully causing trouble” was visiting every classroom to talk about “Gentlemanly behavior”. And from that day until the end of the year, there was always a staff member in the parking lot after school.
Now, I don’t tell this story to make you think I’m some super noble activist guy. I’m really not. What I am is fiercely loyal to my friends. And what I hope you take away from this is the importance of disobedience. Teachers can’t tell their students not to behave. Really, that would result in utter chaos and nobody would learn anything. But an artist…ah, now, it almost behooves us to question, to challenge, to instigate.
If you’re curious, the teacher who hosted me sent me an email the following morning:
“Thank you for giving such an awesome presentation. One of my boys (normally a poor student) came to school early to snap up Struts & Frets, and I already have a waiting list for Misfit. So you — and your books — were clearly a big hit. I really appreciate the interest you have sparked in their reading.”
Hot damn, I’m not going to lie, that feels good.