Darkness

I went to Chestnut's curriculum meeting the other day. Do you have to go to curriculum meetings? It's where you go and visit the classroom where your kid sits every day, and listen to their poor teachers tell all the parents what they're planning to study this year and why, and the parents either sit listening placidly or flip out on the teacher.

There are all kinds of parents there normally, and I always think that we are somehow expressing the student selves we were lo these many years ago. I get snarky and obnoxious, for instance. Other people raise their hands and impress the teacher with their well-thought-out questions.

At this particular curriculum meeting, my attention was caught by a parent in the ELA (English Language Arts, for those of you who are blessedly free from acronyms like this) (aka: the class formerly known as English) presentation, who asked the teacher a question. "I'm concerned about the darkness of the stories you're having them read." (Note: kids had read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" the night before.) (Full text is in a PDF here.) (And a bunch of other stories, The Scarlet Ibis, etc.) "I worry that we're telling them the world is a terrible place with all these awful things in it, and we're somehow spreading the message that it's their job to fix it."

And I thought: Wait, that's true though, right? I mean, it's not ONLY their job to fix it. It's our job too, it's…well, it's the job of every human being? As much as we can? To be a force of light and healing in the world, to bring relief to the suffering, to stop the wicked, to counteract evil?

I had one of those all-too-frequent moments as a parent where I think, "Oh shit, am I doing this totally wrong?"

I don't mean to harsh on this person's literary desires. Well, I sort of do, but not in a mean way (I'm sure she would appreciate that). But while I bristle a bit at the thought that literature is for anything in particular, surely it's for that. And while I, too, have been given pause by various things the school system has thrown at my kids, and I wouldn't argue that in 7th grade they're fully grown and ready to read The Exorcist (no one is ever ready to read The Exorcist), I do think that, well, what the lady said, except that it's ok. As in: It's telling them that the world is full of terrible things and it's their job to fix it. Oh, and also that they should read things that are good and interesting.

What say you?

9 thoughts on “Darkness

  1. I’ve always felt that it’s a safe way to explore darkness. I know that from an early age I always rooted for the vampire (of the non sparkly variety) or the misunderstood assassin or whatever.
    I’ve always been a sci-fi fantasy junkie and most of that tends towards the darker aspects of humanity. There isn’t much fixing in some of it. That’s life.. and reality.
    As for how appropriate horror and fantasy are for kids? Eh.. depends on the kid, and the age.
    I don’t think any school year ever goes by without some parent complaining, by the way. In my day it was parents having fits over books like ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ being too violent and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ being much too racist.
    Eh.. you can’t please everyone.

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  2. Huh. I certainly don’t think “ur doin it wrong”, but I read as transport or escape. Dark stuff just brings me down and makes me feel helpless. Joy and beauty feel empowering and sustaining. More generally, I think of literature as exploratory, teaching us about ourselves, rather than dictating to us how to be or what to do. But I’ve always read your blog as being very much about the former and not the latter anyway?

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  3. I think I love you so much sometimes — well — I guess that’s weird. In all seriousness, though, when else to read all the dark stuff, absorb it all and be titillated by all of it, then when it still feels a tad “verboten?” I think kids will naturally gravitate toward what they prefer despite whatever they’re “exposed” to in their ELA classes — eventually.

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  4. I agree with you. I think that all that terrible stuff is stuff kids in middle school need to know because they are more “out there in the world” so to speak than when they are in elementary school. They need to be aware that there are things that can happen. I didn’t read your links (no time right now) so I am not sure what they are about, but I can guess. Plus, this goes back to that whole WSJ article for me, and the Sherman Alexie rebuttal. It is all of our jobs, as you said, to bring light and love to the forefront and to stick up for it even if it is hard. A good book or story is a great way to role play that.

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  5. Oh for the love of… seriously? They are worried about their child getting engaged in making the world a better place?
    Like the commenters said above, literature is a safe place to explore darkness, which exists in the real world. If you “protect” your children to the point that you don’t want them having any contact with bad or sad things, they will be wholly unprepared to deal with them when they encounter them in real life.

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  6. What did the teacher reply to the parent? I’m curious if she justified the stories as not being that dark, or addressed the “pressure to fix the world” complaint.

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  7. She was quite gracious. She said she always looked for a wide variety of books and stories, and that most things on this reading level were at least a little dark. She said it was a complicated age in terms of how kids interacted with the world—that was the most directly she addressed that aspect of it. And she welcomed any suggestions for reading material.

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  8. Ah- this was a huge issue in our household as my daughter’s 7th grade English teacher assigned novels that were exclusively dark, dystopian or addressing societal problems/historical issues. The teacher said a similar thing to yours- that these are the issues that kids are dealing with and what they are interested in. Well, not my daughter. So when she had to do a term paper in that class on a controversial issue- she picked “The Problem of Problem Novels for Students”. Heh, heh, heh. She got an A on the paper, but I am pretty sure the teacher did not appreciate it. There is a whole body of research that says these are not the kinds of texts that should be assigned- but optional, so that kids can come to these issues as they are ready.

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