Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I Am the Gatekeeper - and I Am Tired

I was reading a book for adults this weekend and came across a part where the main character was having a party. Her party planner invited a medium to do a seance at the party. The following thoughts went through my mind:
- Dang it! Now I can't put the book in the library!
- Wait! This is a book for grown ups. It doesn't matter. I don't have to screen this one.
- *sigh* I think the "gatekeeper" role is starting to get to me....

I feel like I have to be the gatekeeper for the library at my school. It is best practice for my job that I read widely and often. I can't connect students to books if I don't know my students and I don't know the books that are out right now that are written for elementary-aged students.

The fact that I teach at a Christian school adds a layer on top of those general responsibilities, though. My feeling is that parents and the administration/board expect that the books we put in the library (and to some extent what we sell at the book fair) are going to fit with (or at least not go against) their beliefs - and those beliefs are as varied as you can imagine. While we include materials from Christian publishers, we also have a reading program that doesn't always cover those materials. And more and more, secularly published books are including language, romantic situations, magic/fantasy/paranormal creatures and monsters, and alternate lifestyles even in books for younger readers.

So, I am the gatekeeper. When reading a book that I might want to put in the library, I can't just be swept away by the story. I have to be watchful of language or characters or themes that could raise flags in a Christian context. If there is any element of fantasy or "magic," I have to decide if it could be perceived as witchcraft or evil in any way. If there are a couple swear words in the story, I take it to my principal to make my case for putting the book in the library because I feel there is more merit in using it than "danger" with the language. I've never been told I have to take these issues to my principal. I think I'm just worried about creating a situation that prompts a challenge and I want someone in authority to have given me the okay for choosing to value the content as more important than the drawbacks.

At our recent book fair, a colleague asked if I was going to put a particular book out for sale. The secondary school had chosen not to sell the book in their fair. I had read the book and had been talking it up with all of my older students. Several were eager to buy it or read it. I felt it was more of a super hero/super power story than a magic story. A few days later I received a Christian newsletter about children's lit and this book was highlighted as a fun adventure story for kids. I felt vindicated - it was "okay" that I was okay with this book. But I still had a parent say "absolutely not" for her child when I described the story line to her.

I think I am more aware of my gatekeeping fatigue right now because I read for the library intensely this summer and that intensity has kept up through the first 4 months of school. I'm tired from the pressure. And I'm starting to wonder if the pressure is really there from parents and the school, or if I am letting my fear of failure - which in my mind would be a challenge of material I read and chose to put in the library that someone else wants removed - drive me to a higher standard than was intended when I was hired for my job. Besides, it's a LOT of work to put a new book in the library. I'd rather not do all that work for a book that won't stand up to scrutiny.

So far, I have had individual students return materials they borrowed from the library because a parent didn't care for the content. Two cases I remember specifically - one was a book from the Chronicles of Narnia that used the d--- word and the other book referenced magic in a fairly mild way (in comparison to a book like Harry Potter) and the family said the student shouldn't read anything with magic. A student reminded me recently of another book a student returned because a character took the Lord's name in vain. I don't remember that instance, but it felt familiar when she mentioned it. In all of those cases, the student returned the book and I helped them find something else that was a better fit. There was no challenge of the material for the school at large - just a parental preference for their own child. On the other side of the issue, if a student wants a book I don't have in the library - for whatever reason, be it limited resources or content, I readily refer the student to the public library. We have a fantastic one!

I really wrestle with all this gatekeeping.... A friend called it censorship. And he is right in a way. I don't black out swear words in our books, but I won't put Harry Potter in the library, either, because it is a fight that isn't worth starting. I've had families touring the school say, "You don't have Harry Potter in the library, do you?" I've had two discussions about Harry already this school year, and the folks who raised objections about the books in the conversations were vehement in their disapproval of the series. Is it censorship not to have the series in the library? No. It is a choice. My students can access the books at home, on e-readers, and at the library. And my students who read Harry know that I have read the series and I'll talk to them about the books. But I also cringe inside every time I read Wild About Books out loud to a class because she buys "waterproof books for the otter who never went swimming without Harry Potter." I wait a heartbeat before continuing, always wondering if I'm going to get a negative comment from a student about even mentioning the series. Even at school yesterday, when talking with a colleague about some books her kids are reading I paused, wondering if I should warn her about some controversial content in an upcoming book. I decided that she wasn't asking for my professional input so I kept my thoughts to myself. Their family can enjoy the series and encounter the material as they choose.

There are times I envy public school and public library employees. They just provide the materials and let the children and the families make their own choices about content. Patrons or students check out what they want and deal with the content if it comes up. I guess this was the approach I tried with the colleague yesterday. This is not the first time I have wrestled with this issue of censorship on this blog, but I feel no closer to answers than I was back then.

I guess if the alternative to all of this is not putting new books in the library or only being able to talk to students about books and then send them to Amazon or to the public library to get what they want, I wouldn't be happy with that alternative either. It may be time to process all this with my principal and find out what the expectations truly are.

What are your thoughts? What is "censorship?" When is gatekeeping an okay thing and when is it bad? What responsibility do Christian teachers have when it comes to students and literature?

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your posts - the way you delve into the contradictions between your physical and emotional exhaustion, and the “victorious-Christian-soldier” aspects of your job. Yes, of course, children’s libraries need gatekeepers. But there’s no denying that lots of wonderful material gets denounced as wicked by Christians whose standards puzzle me. And there’s no denying that many sheltered kids grow up to equate those standards with unnecessary repression – and then they throw religion out the window all the more energetically.