Back in October, I had the first round of parent teacher conferences with the parents of my middle schoolers. They are highly gifted kids, and have very involved, and sometimes, intense, parents. When I was in the classroom previously, I was a high school teacher in a semi-rural district with high levels of poverty and low-levels of parent engagement with the school. While they could be intense – I once had a drunken father threaten to kill me for failing his son – mostly, they were unable or unwilling to come in, and I only ever saw a handful of parents at conference time.
This particular middle school program is different, and all of the parents showed up. 86 students, and every single parent showed up – and sometimes in two separate shifts, in the case of divorced parents who do not wish to appear together. No one was going to miss out on the opportunity to meet and grill the new Humanities teacher – the third in three years. It was trial by fire a la the Inquisition.
Many of the parents – in fact, most of them – were very supportive, knowing that I had been hired at the last possible moment a mere six weeks before the conferences, and expressed their satisfaction at what I had done so far and their opinions that their children liked me and were enjoying my class. Some were inquisitive about what else I would teach, in a combination of simple curiosity and acute parental oversight to make sure that their children were going to be sufficiently and appropriately challenged, with the balance of the two shifting depending on the personalities involved. So many parents came to conferences that we were nearly immediately behind on our tight time schedule, despite the fact that we started early and stayed late on our evening conference day and on the dreaded 12 hour shift day, worked straight through our designated lunch, dinner, break, and prep times and an hour past the end of the last scheduled conference in order to see everyone.
Two parents in particular stood out for their terrifying intensity, and bearing in mind the aforementioned death threats, know that I do not terrify easily. One mother, on apparent Tiger Mother overdrive, was so intense about her hatred for her autistic and creative daughter’s desire to read, the quality of her reading choices (lots of fantasy) and her wish to ban her daughter from ever reading at all in her home, that she sent her daughter into stress induced behaviors that I never see in my classroom and me into a state of shock. The other mother, in a tumult of Russian fury, spent 25 minutes of her scheduled 8 minute conference berating me about her daughter’s choice to be in the Oregon Battle of the Books, the quality of that reading material, her insistence that her daughter would never again be allowed to compete since the material was all such trash, and then a final 5 minutes cross-examining me about the upcoming curriculum in Humanities. It was an unusual experience all around.
I encountered this last mother again yesterday when she sent me an angry email demanding my justification for using a 69 year old Ray Bradbury short story, “The Veldt,” in my unit on dystopian literature. She wanted to know where I got off exposing 11-12 year old children to such a terrible story, in which it is implied that the children use their virtual reality playground to create lions who eventually eat the parents at whom they are angry. Her sense of the story was that I was teaching violence was the way to solve problems, and that children can act violently with no consequences. (To everyone else, including many, many teachers, our district curriculum committee, who have reviewed this text before when challenged, and all my students, who are in mingled classes of 6th-8th graders who range in age from barely 11-14, the story was about the dangers of unfettered technological development and the risk of replacing social interaction and familial bonds with technology that does everything for you, but ok, whatever.) Of course, she has a right to object to material that she does not think is appropriate for her daughter, and I explained the origins of this story, why I chose it, what I felt the message was and how I taught that, and how and why the district had defended it in the past. I was polite and professional and will find out after spring break if that was sufficient, or if I will be dragged through a formal challenge.
Both experiences, though, left me with a profound gratitude that I was raised by a mother who did NOT restrict my reading. I was allowed to read whatever and whenever I wanted, including at meals in restaurants, at every possibly odd moment at home, and in all of my “down” time. My mother stood up to her own domineering mother’s insistence that I should not read at the table because it was rude. My mother took on the scary librarians who challenged my right to have a library card when I was four, despite the fact that I could read and write, challenged every single book I read when I out-read everyone else in the summer reading contest that year (by more than 100 books), because a four year old could not possibly read that much or those books, and who would not let me cross the foyer to the grown-up section of the library to select adult books when I was seven, although I had read every book in the children’s section and had been reading grown-up books for a year already. Mom held firm and won each battle. She took me to the library every few days, and although she would not take me to the bookstore to buy books every time I asked, always took me when she had extra money to spend and never let me leave empty-handed. I did not realize how much of a gift that was, because it did not occur to me that there were parents in this world who would limit their children’s reading choices or take away their books altogether.
So thank you, Mom, for never standing in my way or blocking my access to books. Thank you for fighting Grandma and skeptical librarians, and introducing me to 19th century classics and gentle comedies and memoirs from the 20s and 30s which did not contain content that would overwhelm a small child. Thank you for introducing me to the “banned in Boston” and “banned by the Church” novel that I spent a semester reading in my Catholic high school’s library the year that I was exempted from English class because they did not know what to do with me. Thank you for always buying me books in the bookstore, even now, when I have spent all my book money buying books for my own child. You and my books made me who I am, and that person will keep teaching what she thinks is right and valuable, even if it ruffles some feathers.