Thursday, June 16, 2005
The Problem With Huck Finn
"Mom, can you proofread my paper for me? " Brian asked from the doorway.

I pulled a colored pencil from behind my ear and shaded in a section of the portrait I was experimenting with at my desk. "Uh huh. " I leaned forward to inspect my work. "Just bring it in to me, and I'll look it over."

My son hesitated. "JUST proofread it, okay? Don't go changing anything else."

I looked up at him suspiciously. "Why would I change anything else?"

Brian hedged. "You may not agree with some of my arguments."

"Oh really?" Now I was curious. "And what exactly is your paper about?"

" . . . Censorship," he said hesitantly.

"You wrote a PRO-CENSORSHIP paper?" I exploded. "Are you kidding me?"

My son shook his head. "See, I knew this would happen. Just read it, okay?"

Brian reached across my desk and downloaded his paper to my computer screen. I stared incredulously at the title: Censorship, The View You Haven't Heard.

"Please tell me you're kidding."

Brian just grinned.

Sighing, I leaned back in my chair and started reading. His basic premise was that if a book is required reading for middle school students, then minute changes could be made to remove profanity and sexually explicit material without damaging the integrity of the text. As an example, he referred to the "N" word in Huckleberry Finn.

"You want to change Huck Finn? Are you nuts?" I was beside myself.

"It's an offensive word, mom," he insisted. "Shouldn't I, as a parent, have the right to deem what's appropriate for my own child to read?"

"You just can't go around removing words from an author's text!" I shouted. "It changes the meaning! God!" I began pacing the room. "Books like Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom's Cabin dealt with a particular period of our history. By all means have a class discussion about why such language isn't appropriate today, but don't chop up a classic work of literature to try to make it more bland and digestible!"

Brian stood his ground. "All I'm saying is that the parents should have some say as to the appropriateness of the material their kids are forced to read."

"And that's exactly where the whole concept of censorship falls apart! How exactly do they determine what's appropriate? And what happens to us as a society when we are spoon fed an "appropriate" vision of the world? Writing and art are supposed to move people--to shake them up, make them think, provoke some sort of reaction. If you don't agree with something in a book, then use that as an opportunity to talk to your child about the issue. Don't just suppress it like it doesn't exist." I paused, taking a deep breath. "I really can't believe we're even having this conversation."

Amber walked in the room and looked from me to her brother. "What's going on, you two?"

I folded my arms over my chest. "Your brother thinks it's okay to censor books."

"No way!" She turned to her brother. "What books do you want to censor?"

"I'm just saying that I think parents should have the right to choose what's appropriate when it comes to required school reading," Brian explained patiently.

I cleared my throat pointedly. "He wants to edit the "N" word from Huckleberry Finn."

Amber laughed. "Are you nuts?" she asked him. "What are you going to change it to?
'Black Man'? Jeez, Bri."

Thank God one of my kids got it.

"It's like those weird translations in a foreign film," she continued thoughtfully. "You know. The guy will be screaming something like 'dammit, my leg's been blown off!' and the subtitle says 'my goodness, I've lost a lower appendage.' It just doesn't make sense anymore."

Brian argued his point. "I still say that if the school is going to force required reading on the kids, the parents should have the right to insist that offensive parts be removed. Or alternatively, teachers and parents should work together to come up with more appropriate titles."

He continued. "People who are anti-censorship always insist that if you change one word you change the whole book. Then they point to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 452 and start preaching about the coming of the apocalypse and the loss of first amendment rights. It's just not that extreme. Stuff like that would never be allowed to happen."

I stared at him."I can't believe you just said that."

"Okay, okay," my son laughed. "I'll stop. Did you proof the paper?"

"Yes. The spelling and grammar are fine, but I were your teacher I'd flunk you."

He protested. "Hey! You can't flunk me just for disagreeing with you!"

"I wouldn't flunk you for disagreeing with me. I'd flunk you for not being able to support your argument. Your position falls apart when it comes to deciding what is 'appropriate.' Who decides this and how? Who's to say whether a painting is art or pornography? Or if a book is important and worthwhile or dangerous and offensive?"

Brian thought for a minute. "Give it here then. I'll try tweaking it a little."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My son came home with his paper today. He was the only kid in his class to get a 100.

I'm seriously thinking of going into his room with a black marker and crossing out sections of the different books on his shelf.

After all, as a concerned parent, I wouldn't want any of those titles to give him inappropriate ideas.
Memories and musings shared by Juno
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I'm a 40-something writer, artist, and Jill-of-All-Trades. For me, magic is looking at the ordinary and seeing the extraordinary. My writing tends to take me to unexpected places--not so surprising when I think about it. I had an unusual growing up and have always chosen the offbeat over the "safe". I prefer interesting people over beautiful ones, and I am fascinated by people's stories. What I love most about life is its glorious imperfections and fantastic plot twists.

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