So, I’ve been thinking about what is normal and what kind of relationships we normalize in what we read in schools. I wrote about my experience reading Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan with my senior English elective, YA Fiction. I am continuing to think about these ideas given some professional learning on my part and more interaction with students, and just because I think it’s important.
Books are a big part of how students experience others and themselves. For white heterosexual students, they find themselves all over the place in books. For males in particular, they are the central characters time and again. They act. They search. They discover. They solve. They lead. They also dominate. A few years ago I attended a panel discussion that focused on diverse voices in YA fiction. Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely co-authors of All American Boys spoke about their early reading experiences. Keily noted that he saw himself in so many characters. Reynolds did not. Audience members pushed back saying that books let you see others and try out all sorts of unfamiliar ideas and actions. True. And, Reynolds argued, in order to see others in literature, you first have to see yourself. (I am paraphrasing and it was a while ago, but I’m confident that was the idea.)
So, when we have a diverse group of students in our classrooms (and some of that diversity is hidden from view) what do we have a responsibility to highlight? Really that is what we do when we pull a book out of the millions of titles out there and choose to read it. We highlight that book, that author, those characters, those ideas, those actions. Who sees themselves and who sees others? Should every student see him or herself at some point? If not, why not?
At an ADVIS event recently, Orpheus Crutchfield and Mary Rose Fernandez guided the group in discussing students and teachers of color in independent schools. We were asked to consider how seriously independent school really want diversity in a pluralistic society? What are independent schools willing to do to be places where diverse people (students, teachers, administrators, board members) want to be? I would not deliberately send my personal kids to a school that never read about them. My kids are white. There’s little chance of that happening. However, what about women and girls? Will my daughter see women acting in the literature she reads in high school, or will she read about women being acted upon? Will she have to identify with the men and boys in the books she reads to have any interesting characters to connect to? What if one or both of my kids is not heterosexual? What about students who have same-sex parents? Will they ever read about a relationship that speaks to them? Will all students read about people who are not white, and who are also neither victims nor incarcerated?
This year in my class, we are reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. There are many relationships in the book–friends, mentor/mentee, teacher/student, romantic, familial. One of the relationships is between two men. Again, there is VERY little description of anything physical (PG-13 for sure), and again I got some wide eyes after an assignment where there was little more than a reference to sex. “I wasn’t expecting THAT,” I heard. Why not? All signs were pointing to these two getting together. We had discussed this potential and the ways the author was leading up to it. I think I should translate the students words. Rather than “I wasn’t expecting that,” I think the students was saying “I’m not used to reading about a gay relationship.” However, now the student will have read a book with a gay relationship. Next book, it won’t be a first.
I have no answers here. The only thing I am sure about is that part of my responsibility as the book chooser is to continue to highlight more than one story.