I was in seventh grade the first time I remember a book being banned. It was “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston — a non-fiction book about the deadly Ebola virus appearing in the suburbs of Washington D.C. While I would like to say that I — as an enlightened, socially aware 12 year old — marched right down to the bookstore and bought it with my hard-earned allowance, I didn’t. And I still haven’t read the book.
I’m sure whatever parent protested had their heart in the right place. Ebola, after all, is a nasty virus. But the book was much more than a graphic portrayal of an epidemic: It was an opportunity to learn about the spread of viruses and the science behind them. And now that the exact same virus is ravaging West Africa and I so poorly understand why, it’s an opportunity I truly feel robbed of.
That’s why I was so disappointed to see that Highland Park High School had suspended seven different books from its reading list because parents objected to the “adult content.” Only days ago, parents packed into the school’s auditorium, clutching sticky-note filled books, haughtily narrating passages that referenced sex, abuse, homosexuality and even a scene that criticized capitalism. That it happens to be “Banned Books Week” this week only makes their protest more concerning.
One of the books, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” which is about exactly what you think it is, was flagged because part of the book concerns a woman who was raped as a child and later had an abortion. Another, “The Glass Castle,” is a memoir about growing up in poverty with an abusive father and a mother who later became homeless.
While these parents may think that this content is too “adult” or too distant for their children to understand, they couldn’t be farther from the truth. If they don’t think sexual assault happens near them, they need only walk the few blocks over to Southern Methodist University to learn there have been three sexual assaults reported already this year. And if they don’t think that poverty exists, or that some don’t legitimately question the moral underpinnings of capitalism, they need only drive a few miles down I-35 to see how the other half lives.
I left Dallas almost three years ago to teach in an impoverished city more than 1,500 miles away. The stories the children in that city have to tell about their lives — lived in the same amount of time as the students who roam the halls of Highland Park High School — are the stuff of these books. Those are the lives that some Highland Park parents want their children to ignore.
In the city where I taught, the poverty rate is 30 percent. In Highland Park, it’s 5 percent. In my city, there were 969 rapes reported in 2012. In Highland Park, none were reported. In my city, 2012 came with 387 murders. In Highland Park — not one. And so it goes.
The unfortunate reality is that the children in this less-fortunate city are likely to have too many structural barriers standing in their way to make them the next senator, governor or CEO of a major company. But the kids at Highland Park have those opportunities in spades.
That Highland Park High School is the alma mater of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, an Academy Award-winning documentarian, a governor of Texas and a mayor of Dallas shouldn’t be surprising. With its overwhelmingly privileged student body, high levels of funding and safe location, how could it not be? The school is almost guaranteed to produce people who will have an impact far beyond the palatial homes and perfectly manicured parks dotting their hometown. They will be global.
And their global impact will come without the lessons these books could teach — the hard lessons about the poverty, violence and unhappiness that plague so much of our country. And if the next leaders of this world don’t truly understand the lives of the people their parents consider “too different” or “too adult” for their children to understand, how are they supposed to make this world a better place?
Some parents may consider classrooms an inappropriate place to have these conversations, but classrooms are a safe space built for conversations exactly like these. Teachers — many of the best of whom work at Highland Park — are trained to push discussion and teach critical thought by broaching subjects that are, by design, uncomfortable and distant. And, at a very basic level, if they don’t have these conversations now, when will they have them?
College, given its propensity to fuel and then mishandle cases of sexual violence, is certainly not the place to learn about abuse and rape for the first time. And if these students, as they are likely to do, simply move to a place exactly like Highland Park after college, then they will have altogether missed the opportunity to understand the part of the city that they have so much potential to help.
You need only read basic facts about Highland Park’s history to know that John S. Armstrong built the town to be “a refuge from an increasingly diverse city.” So while the town’s foundations were designed to keep out the realities of the surrounding world, it is imperative that the schools are not forced to do the same. It is a sacrifice that will affect many more than just the students these parents are trying to protect.
NOTE: This piece ran concurrently in the White Rock Lake Weekly, a local paper serving East Dallas and Highland Park.