The Edge of Tension

A few weeks ago, right around the time I started to really get to know my students, a shy girl–the brooding artistic type lingered after class, nervously asking me if I had read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I mentioned that I hadn’t, she insisted that I should “definitely check it out.” She assured me that I would love it.

Coincidently, a short time later my wife read the book, and I began to hear about it from different people everywhere. It has since been passed around the grade eight and several of my students have taken to blogging about it. My wife was surprised that so many grade eight “kids” are reading it, as some of the main themes are “inappropriate.”

Since I am still mired in Infinite Jest, I haven’t had time to read the novel, but I just returned from a movie date. Yup you guessed it: sex, drugs and rock and roll and suicide and sexual molestation, and mental illness– it is all there. I would have loved this book in grade eight, so why do I feel nervous talking about it with my students? I have a book that kids are exited about it. They are asking me to read it. Isn’t this what we want?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by helenâ˜ș

Realistically there is nothing new here, nothing that wasn’t covered in Catcher in the Rye, but for some reason, anything that veers ever so slightly from the sterile narratives of life as puppies and rainbows makes us nervous. We pretend that young adults and teenagers do not swear, they don’t think about sex and they don’t drink or do drugs.

We tell them not to do these things, without giving reasons why, only to act surprised when they experiment and get lost, but here is the thing–whether or not we admit that kids are thinking about these big ideas, they are! They want to talk to us about drugs and sex and alienation. We owe it to our students to meet them at the edge of tension and their interests or we will lose them to sanitized versions of life that bore us all. Kids gravitate toward the dark frayed edges of life and we owe them literature, culture and media that helps them navigate these edges, but how do we know when is too soon?

I hate to pin everything I do based on who I was in middle school, but it is my main point of reference. I know that I really could have used some adults to talk to about so many topics deemed inappropriate. I figured it out on my own, like most of us do, but why do we force kids to do that? We have been there, don’t we owe it to them to help?

Experience has taught me that we underestimate kids at nearly every turn, but what do you think? I know many grade 11 and 12 teachers who are not shackled by taboo themes in literature. But what about middle school? How do you decide which themes are age appropriate? How do you know how far to go down dark paths? Can we teach this novel? Should we? Talk to me people…


10 thoughts on “The Edge of Tension

  1. avatar@klhellerman

    I live in this constant tension as well. As a middle school Spanish teacher, much of the authentic material I find, is culturally appropriate for Spanish speakers ages 10-13, but pushes the limits for American middle schoolers. I know that most of my students don’t live in the world of rainbows and puppies. But there are a few who do. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I really want to be the one who bursts that bubble.

  2. avatarHassan

    I actually placed an order for this book. Waiting eagerly! I also think you nailed it. Being told to stay away from all that stuff just makes it worse because then we start talking to our friends about it and they’re just as lost as we are and we end up with broken pieces to make our own assumptions. Being a teen doesn’t help either because its in our very nature to annoy adults right? Its ‘cool’to do what we’re not supposed to. To be THAT rebel among your friends group of friends. To be honest I personally grew up under a little stricter rules than most of my friends. I’m almost 17 and I ask my older brother on good movies to watch and he STILL tells me that I should stay away from a few. I actually appreciate it to be honest because I’ve seen some of the stuff I’m ‘not supposed to’ and it is a shock but I do believe avoiding it completely is just going to make it worse.

  3. avatarIan Tymms
    Twitter: itymms

    A very challenging topic, Jabiz. I have worked with people who have got it badly wrong and the consequences have been dire – for the student no less than the teacher. I respect the desire to support students, but the complexities of adolescent minds makes this very difficult territory to negotiate effectively and appropriately. A good conversation to have. I’m also interested in what others have to say.

  4. avatarPaula Guinto
    Twitter: paulaguinto

    Hhhmmm…I think it all boils down to the spaces of trust that we create and the relationships we build not just with kids but with all stakeholders (read: parents). Everyone has to trust everyone. Because I totally agree with this…

    “We owe it to our students to meet them at the edge of tension and their interests or we will lose them to sanitized versions of life that bore us all. Kids gravitate toward the dark frayed edges of life and we owe them literature, culture and media that helps them navigate these edges”

    Operative words – help them navigate the edges. We are not pushing them off. We are not bringing them there only to leave them. We are hanging out there because everyone trusts everyone. Nobody is letting anyone go, right? When that trust is in place…then readiness is something that can be talked about, negotiated, reflected upon. There is no one line because each cohort is different.

    It would be amazing if our students felt comfortable and were open to talk to their teachers about these issues. That they are unafraid to ask us questions about the “unspeakable” and have more “informed” conversations about it with their peers? Wouldn’t that be a different kind of teaching and learning connection? These days, most lines are blurred anyway…private/public…young/old…teacher/student…expert/learner…fact/fiction…truth/history. We have been there…Why not go there? WE will be THERE anyway.

    A lot of the best discussions in my classroom have come from conversations about gritty curiosities , “grown up” inevitabilities, and the power of “foul language”. If we pushed the envelope in our classrooms, we might better prepare them for … well, life; you know, amidst substance abuse, hormones, betrayal, peer pressure, isolation, loneliness and heart break. Most MS kids I know are tired of fairy tales and have had their rites of passage to certain “truth” — parents don’t know everything, santa is not real and happy endings are subjective. They are ready. Are we?

    Now, not sure if this is the book to do all that…but wow, to meet students at the ravine…how exciting.

  5. avatarPaulW

    The ‘age appropriate’ thing is an issue here. There are some 12 year olds who you can talk about just about anything with. And there are some 12 year olds with whom you can’t really talk about anything. Shouldn’t it be ‘person appropriate’. The tricks are to 1) know your students and 2) use a pedagogical style that personalises learning. Do we all have to read the same book? (I’m not sayin that that is what you are doing, but it does pretty much happen still. Right?)

  6. avatarStuart
    Twitter: stuartmacalpine

    Hi Jabiz, the important thing I guess is that you are thinking about it. I would want to have these conversations with parents openly in the way that you have put in here, as they too have a right to decide ‘when is too soon’. I suppose there are taboos that are there to be broken and are meaningless; but there are also taboos that are there to protect childhood, and to model values. Given you are a ‘family guy’ and caring I’d hope you’d get the balance right.

  7. avatarAngela Erickson

    I wouldn’t teach PofBaW as I personally don’t think it has much literary merit. Yet I have a bunch of grade 8s and even a few grade 7s reading it. I have read it, and this is what I say when I see one of them with it in my class for independent reading time:

    “I have read that novel, and I think that some of the writing and ideas in it are great. I also think that there are some mature scenes and some content that would worry me if I were your parent. However, when I was your age I would never want to talk to my mom about a book like this or the issues in it, so if this is the case with you, I want you to know that if you need someone to talk to about this, I am a good adult to have that sort of conversation with.”

    It is my sincere hope that some day my future son or daughter will have a teacher that would do the same.

  8. avatarLizzi Williams
    Twitter: lizzisoper

    Hi Jabiz,

    A great topic to discuss…I think there is a real difference between engaging on a one-to-one basis with individuals who have themselves chosen to read a particular book, and choosing it as a whole-class reader. As others have said, there is a huge range of maturity in every class, even beyond Middle School, and trust can quickly be destroyed by a teacher who pushes too far, too fast. I also think that there are plenty of texts that deal with the messy aspects of life, but that remain appropriate. This is where I think older texts can work quite well; a text that has relevant themes, but is a little distant in terms of context, can provide a platform for challenging discussion, while maintaining a sense of safety. For instance, Jekyll and Hyde can easily be brought to bear on issues surrounding addiction and drug use. More mature readers can be sensitively directed to explore the ragged edges of society that Stevenson doesn’t explicitly describe, while the Gothic theme places it safely away from everyday life for those of a more delicate nature…

  9. avatarShruti Tewari
    Twitter: sbtewari

    Middle School is hard! Really, really hard! You think you’re an adult. You think you know it all. You think that you don’t really no anything at all. It’s hard. What makes it even more difficult as a teacher is how students are in the same Grade level, but some students are as mature as a Grade 10 student and others as mature as a Grade 4 student. We read ‘Master Harold…’ and the boys in class. The Grade 10 boys couldn’t stop laughing at the f*** references at the beginning. The Grade 10 girls rolled their eyes at the immaturity of the boys. What then is age appropriate?

    I think if a book has resonated with a several students, a class, a grade, and they bring it up, it’s OK to discuss the things in it: birth, sex, drugs, death, love, lust. Isn’t that what literature is always about? However, I would let the students steer the discussion. They know what they are comfortable discussing and they are the ones that have to deal with their own emotions/response rather than just discussing a character in a novel.
    Why do some students love literature classes? Because they get to talk about love, life, death, sex and everything else. You cannot do that in a math class. I suppose you could discuss these things in a science class/theatre, psychology. But in middle school, it’s generally in literature classes.
    They do need someone to talk to. They do need to know that what they are experiencing is normal/gets better/will end/will never end/doesn’t get better or whatever else it might be. I think our role as teachers and lovers of literature is to encourage students to read deeper into what you term “sanitized” literature. There’s generally a lot more going on. Even in something like “Love that Dog,” you can see the struggles, the emotions, the discussion of life and death and everything in between. We treated it one way for Grade 7; we could treat it another way for Grade 10.
    I think as long as they are reading and as long as they feel they can discuss their readings and their thoughts, it’s all going very well.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.