School Teachers are Finding Literature Too Hot to Handle

January 2022

On March 19, 2021, the British Columbia Commissioner for Teacher Regulation docked a middle school teacher in Prince George, Andrew Dennis, one day’s pay for showing his Grade 6-7 class the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, arguing “this film was not curriculum-related, nor is it age-appropriate as it deals with racism and rape, and contains repeated use of the word ‘n****r.’ In the B.C. curriculum, [the novel] To Kill a Mockingbird is listed as a secondary school level resource for Grades 10 and higher.” In actual fact, the B.C. curriculum does not list any books because the province’s school districts are the arbiters of what books are suitable in schools and at what grades. The Ministry of Education used to evaluate novels but stopped doing so in 1998, passing the task over to local school districts which are free to develop their own policies and procedures. Hence, it was the Prince George School District which decided the novel was restricted to Grades 10 and up, not the province as reported by the Commissioner.

For the record, other novels in schools deal with the same content – The Kite Runner, for instance, with its child anal rape scene has been used in Surrey elementary schools; Of Mice and Men, which is at almost all high schools provincially, has the N-word.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and first published in 1960. A review in The Guardian newspaper suggests the novel is suitable for children much younger than Grade 10: “If you are a human being with emotions, this book will impact you, regardless of age, gender or background. This book makes you FEEL: that’s the best way to describe it. Ultimately, there’s a reason why people still read this book. It’s a reason you won’t understand until you pick up the book, and feel the words speak to you.” Harper Lee herself would have considered her novel suitable for a younger audience as her protagonist, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is only 8 years old. The Vancouver Public Library has a list of the “100 best books for BC students,” and To Kill a Mockingbird is second. PBS online recommends the book from Grades 6-12 and lists it under “Middle School Titles,” not secondary titles, as part of its “The Great American Read” collection. It was subsequently voted by viewers “America’s #1 best-loved novel.” My own school district banned another literary classic, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – the sixth most read book ever – after one person in the district objected to its use in schools owing to its original title with the N-word almost 100 years ago. (The ban came into effect in the 2019-20 school year. My school’s English Department is still trying to find a home for its hundreds of copies of the book. It is loath to throw them in a recycling bin.)

Poetry has also been considered illicit when read in a classroom. A French Immersion teacher in Toronto was disciplined in February 2021 because she asked her pupils to read and analyze a poem by the renowned French poet and screenwriter, Jacques Prévert. The teacher, Nadine Couvreux, was publicly denounced by a student in her 10th grade Virtual School Immersion class to Citytv Toronto for teaching an allegedly “racist” poem. The poem was Pour toi mon amour (“For you my love”). The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson told the reporter that Couvreux was solely responsible for the situation since the poem was not part of the curriculum. The teacher was later the subject of a harsh Zoom interrogation by members of the TDSB. She received a disciplinary letter warning her that “any future incidents of this kind may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

Prévert’s short poem is copied here:

For You, My Love

I went to the market of birds
And I bought birds
For you
My love
I went to the market of flowers
And I bought flowers
For you
My love
I went to the market of ironwork
And I bought chains
Heavy chains
For you
My love
And then I went to the market of slaves
And I looked for you
But I did not find you there
My love

The word “slaves” caused the contretemps. The Ontario Curriculum states the following direction for teachers of French Immersion under the subheading Specific Expectations for Reading Comprehension: “Demonstrate an understanding of a variety of literary, informational, and graphic French texts, including challenging texts and texts used in real-life situations.” The Curriculum does not say anywhere which “poems are not part of the curriculum.” A writer at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo picked up the story and argued that educational elites across the west are guided by impulses of conformity, by fear of themselves being called racist, and by woke ideology even though this feminist poem was written by a well-known anti-racist. The magazine took the side of Couvreux, calling the Toronto District School Board “fanatical inquisitors” who seek to “destroy and burn with sadistic joy and political madness.” A writer at The Times newspaper of London, England also reported on this “transatlantic ‘cancel culture’ row,” saying Prévert’s own granddaughter had written to the TDSB to criticize its actions.

It is not only teachers who are disciplined. The chairman of the Ontario College of Teachers’ Discipline Committee, Jacques Tremblay was forced to resign from the committee due to controversy over a 2008 book he, his wife and a friend coauthored, The Sexteens and the Fake Goddess, its most salacious description being of a first-year high school girl with a “gorgeous bosom” and “barely fleshy buttock.” The girl takes an oath as a new member of the covert Sexteens’ Select Society, solemnly promising to “develop my teenage life at my own rhythm inspired by the aphrodisiac cult, which is based on the power of love and the emancipation of my sexuality.” The book was labelled a “blue-teen” novel in newspaper reports, and the cover features a topless girl and boy from behind. For writing the book in his off-hours, Tremblay was eventually forced out of his teaching job in 2015 and permanently banned from the profession in Ontario.

The Toronto Star headline article at the time of Tremblay’s resignation from the disciplinary committee was, “Top teacher watchdog who wrote porn resigns.” The definition of pornography, which comes from the Greek word pornographos (“writing about prostitutes”), is that it depicts erotic behaviour over aesthetics and is intended to cause sexual excitement. A review of the book on Amazon says it “includes a threesome between a student and two teachers and other highly inappropriate teacher & student interactions.” One result of censoring books with sex in them is that the swath of the censor’s scythe might be extended to all sorts of books in society, including the Bible. Margaret Atwood wrote in 1987, “[If its] admonition, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ isn’t an incitement to sexual intercourse, I don’t know what is” (“Library doors closed as porn bill ridiculed,” Globe and Mail, 11 December 1987).

The Toronto Star printed an editorial 26 years prior to its sensationally titled 2011 article on Tremblay which lays out an anti-censorship message:

“If we start censoring the classics because someone finds something offensive in them, where do we stop? Would we deny access to Dickens’ Oliver Twist because of how Fagin, a Jew, is portrayed? Would we suppress Homer’s Odyssey because Penelope, a woman who waits at home for ten years while her husband goes off on world adventures, is not a realistic model for today’s young women? In the battle against racism and sexism, the best tools to give our young people are knowledge, the ability to think critically about what they read, and a profound respect for the dignity of all human beings, something that underlies all good literature. This – not censorship – is the way to equip youth to recognize injustice and to change it” (“Passing the buck for U.S. woes,” Toronto Star, 10 March 1985).

About Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly written.” The question of whether Tremblay’s co-authored book is “well written” or “good literature” was not considered in the proceedings against him. He was punished for contributing to the construction of what many viewed as an “immoral” and “pornographic” work, though it is dubious to claim it is either. Indeed, teen novels with sexual themes and content may have positive aspects. The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society’s 2013 National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health found over 34% of the grade 10-12 students surveyed had experienced sexual intercourse, while 69% had had some form of sexual activity. It concludes: “When sex is evidently a part of adolescent lives, it would be remiss not to include it in the literature written for them.” It would also be remiss to exclude it from schools, which is why pupils are taught sex education. Danielle Zimmerman makes the same point: “Sex in YA [young adult] novels is important and greatly impacts how young people not only view and understand themselves, but also the world around them.”

Both Andrew Dennis and Nadine Couvreux were disciplined for not choosing fiction well enough, and Jacques Tremblay lost his certificate permanently for not writing fiction prudish enough. In the first instance, it was the opinion of the court, in the second, the court of opinion. All three may identify with the character Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial who cannot understand his crime: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.” Tremblay wrote in his consent agreement: “I respect the College’s position concerning the restrictions on its members’ freedom of expression, but my vision of the context of this freedom differs drastically from that of the College.”

Jeremy Bentham argued that a censor “risks nothing by prohibition, but everything by permission.” Banning a book or punishing a teacher will keep some parents or other critics at bay, which is why the Providence Catholic School Board burned and ceremoniously buried 5000 books in 2019, including Asterix and Tintin, on the counsel of an ironically self-styled “knowledge-keeper.”

There is something arguably immoral or bad in every book, so there is always an excuse for its removal. As Mark Twain’s literary character Huckleberry Finn says, “What’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same.” It may be troublesome to have literature in schools, but it makes students see or think things they never did before.