Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“Why do I feel it is important to impress upon young readers their right to freedom of speech? Because so many of them don’t know they have freedom of speech. I’m not sure their peer group leaders give them freedom of speech. And I do know that the school library of the school they attend is under heavier attack than the public library just down the street. I think they are in the thick of the battle and many of them are not aware of it.”

Richard Peck
Newbery Medal-winning novelist, quoted on tallmania.com

If the kids at Sherwood Middle School in suburban Portland didn’t know they were in the thick of the battle, they found out with a thud last week. As Oregonian writer Maya Blackmun reported in two excellent stories — Feb. 21 on the uproar, Feb. 22 on the outcome — you can think what you say but you can’t always say what you think. At least, not from a school-sanctioned stage.

In brief: Principal Anna Pittioni postponed the winter play, “Higher Ground,” after last-minute complaints about its contents by parents of a few students involved in the show.

And that content was?

Bullying: the act of one person who holds superior power forcing something unwanted on another who is weaker.

Drama teacher Jennie Brown wrote the script based on conversations with the students. It touches, Blackmun reported, on bullying over the likes of sexual orientation, ethnicity, weight issues, family background, even doing too well in school academically. Pittioni said the script was too mature for middle schoolers and would have to be rewritten. The kids took a vote and decided thanks, but no thanks: We won’t do the play at all.

So here we go again. It seems like shooting ducks in a pond to decry this sort of well-meaning censorship, except it’s a story that keeps repeating itself. So maybe it’s not an easy target, after all: You can hit it square in the nose, but like one of those pop-up inflatable clowns, it keeps bouncing back.

The details are always a little different, but they fit a pattern. “The Laramie Project,” too frank about homophobic violence for school administrators’ comfort. Judy Blume‘s novels, aimed at an age group where girls are already dropping out of school because they’re pregnant, that dare to point out the existence of periods. “The Catcher in the Rye”: so , well, uncouth. “Bridge to Terabithia,” because a main character dies. (So does a main character in “Old Yeller,” but then, it’s only a dog.) “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” because the most admirable character in the book is referred to by the N-word. And it’s not as if adults have set a spectacular example, from the religious-zealot book- and art-burnings of the middle ages to the international death sentence slapped on Salman Rushdie to the Bush administration’s ban on news photographs of soldiers’ caskets returning to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan to the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Ideas scare people. Especially people who have or want power.

Now, I haven’t read the script for “Higher Ground,” and I doubt that it’s Pulitzer Prize material. But that doesn’t change the significance of the issues, and it certainly doesn’t mean those issues aren’t part of the air kids breathe in their schools. Obviously they are: the teacher might have written the script, but the kids came up with the ideas in the play. Anyone with half a memory remembers how cruel children can be, and how much pressure kids face to follow the pack, even when they know the pack is wrong. I happen to have sons 10 and 13 years old, and I know this is part of their lives. “Lord of the Flies” surely overstated its case, but childhood is no pretty Victorian garden, and the sooner adults face up to that, the better off we’ll all be. Yes, parents have the right and responsibility to set down rules and guidelines, and so do schools. Children simply aren’t capable of making all their own decisions wisely: They don’t have enough experience.

But adults have to be very careful how they set their rules, and why they’re doing it. I’m often angered by the influence of pop culture on my sons’ lives, and I have a fierce desire to protect them from the bad and the ugly. Their little-boy crudeness drives me batty, sometimes over the edge. But I also know they’ve been exposed to every one of the issues discussed in “Higher Ground,” and ultimately they need to know how to deal with them. That means, at a fundamental level, facing up to them. Kids may be the cruelest of people, and the most easily swayable, but they also have the most finely honed senses of right and wrong. Pretending we can hide the inevitable from them is plain foolishness, and I confess to being a sometime fool. But afterwards I’m ashamed of myself. I don’t want them to make the same stupid mistakes I made, and maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll make their own stupid mistakes.

The people who ban books and plays, even those who have the most benevolent of intentions, also fundamentally misunderstand the nature of art. They think it’s wallpaper; something pretty in the background. It’s not. It can be many things, but at some level it is always about truth, and at some level that always makes it uncomfortable. And that is one of its primary values to its culture.

I like to read children’s and young-adult books, because the best authors deal so surely with prime questions — the ones that bedevil our children, and that we would all do well not to forget. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Richard Peck’s 2001 Newbery winner “A Year Down Yonder,” and it deals, almost offhandedly but with real skill, with bullies and bullying while getting at his larger issue, which is about children learning to think for themselves and make their own decisions and stand, when such a stand is needed, on their own. In this tale of a 15-year-old Chicago girl who is packed off to live with her formidable grandmother in a whistlestop downstate farm town after her father loses his job in the Roosevelt recession of 1937, Peck offers his readers and his young heroine some pretty funny bully comeuppances, a few of them involving physical pain: the ’30s were a tougher time about things like that. But he also offers some insight into, and a squoosh of sympathy for, the bullies themselves, and that is wise and artful and door-opening: It moves his readers a little beyond themselves, a little more deeply into the fascinating complexities of the untamed world.

That’s called growing up. It’s something that has to be done in any culture that is to survive and thrive and gain or retain some semblance of freedom, and a good play or novel or painting or song can help the process along. Sometimes life hurts, so sometimes art has to hurt.

If adults can get past their squeamishness, they might even discover their kids have a germ of common sense. As Blackmun quotes Genny Torricelli, a Sherwood sixth grader who is one of the kids in what Peck calls “the thick of the battle”: “If there are parents who object they can, A) take their kids out or B) just not watch the play.”

Well, duh.

Sometimes, in the process of discovering how to be independent, kids need to be allowed to make adults uncomfortable. After all, these children soon enough will be parents and taxpayers and public decision-makers and the potential cannon fodder in the next war, or the continuation of the current one, a conflict made possible by a herd that never learned to stand up for itself saying to their leaders, “OK, I guess we should,” even when they knew in their hearts we should not. When their time comes, very soon, these almost-adults should have a say in who their leaders will be, what values their culture should hold, what sacrifices they believe foolish or plausible or necessary, whether they should join the opposition or acquiesce when their country goes on one of its periodic cannibalistic toots against some “undesirable” group or another among its body politic. At the very least, if they go to war, they should have a true sense of why they’re being sent — and that means they have to ask hard questions, demand truthful answers, think for themselves.

An education that shuts down this kind of questioning and social exploration isn’t an education at all.

It’s wallpaper.


— Bob Hicks