Connecticut teacher fired for reading Allen Ginsberg poem students can borrow from the school library
Censorshsip is on the rise in the US. The ‘you can’t say that’ culture is undermining free speech and free thinking. National Coalition Against Censorship has news: “During an AP class discussion about gratuitous language, a student asked a teacher to read an Allen Ginsberg poem. He did. He’s not a teacher anymore.”
David Olio was sacked for reading a poem? Really?
In February two students complained about an Allen Ginsberg poem that, at the request of a fellow student, was shared in Olio’s AP English class at South Windsor High School in Connecticut. A media uproar followed, and Olio was essentially forced to resign.
These tender-minded pupils are age 17 and 18. In Connecticut you can marry at 18 – 16 with judicial & parental consent. Gay marriage is legal so long as the couple are 18 or older (if under 18 a person can marry with the approval of a parent, guardian or district judge).
Most of the facts do not appear to be in dispute – and are more nuanced than the ‘students forced to read shocking homoerotic poem’ media narrative. The overriding question is whether a celebrated teacher with nearly two decades of experience should be forced from the classroom for a single decision – even if one views that decision as a lapse in judgment.
During a class discussion of gratuitous language, a student raised questions about the Ginsberg poem, “Please Master.” The piece was undoubtedly relevant to the discussion; it is also an exceptionally graphic account of a sexual encounter between two men.
So it is not shocking that the story quickly became fodder for local media. “South Windsor Teacher Reads Graphic Poem About Gay Sex to Classroom” read one headline, with the story saying students were “subjected” to the poem. A TV newscast warned viewers the piece was “too graphic to detail in almost any part,” and bizarrely noted that the local police were not involved in the investigation.
Ginsberg wrote Please Sir when he was 42. Young adults are advised to look away now:
Please master can I touch your cheeck
please master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes
please master can I take off my clothes below your chair
please master can I can I kiss your ankles and soul
please master can I touch lips to your hard muscle hairless thigh
please master can I lay my ear pressed to your stomach
please master can I wrap my arms around your white ass
please master can I lick your groin gurled with blond soft fur
please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole
please master may I pass my face to your balls,
please master order me down on the floor,
please master tell me to lick your thick shaft
please master put your rough hands on my bald hairy skull
please master press my mouth to your prick-heart
please master press my face into your belly, pull me slowly strong thumbed
till your dumb hardness fills my throat to the base
till I swallow and taste your delicate flesh-hot prick barrel veined
You can see where its heading. And you read of it here. Or you can read it in The Essential Ginsberg, by the author himself and edited by Michael Schumacher. Students can borrow that book from the South Windsor Public Library, a link to which appears on the website of South Windsor Schools. You can read it on your own in the school-approved collection but it’s banned from class. Discuss.
And you can read the letter Kate Carter, Superintendent of Schools, wrote to David Olio:
The basis for this action is that you exercised egregiously poor professional judgment on February 25, 2015, when you presented and discussed with your Senior AP English class the poem “Please Master” by Allen Ginsberg, content that was neither part of the South Windsor curriculum nor part of your planned lesson for that day. By so doing, you violated the trust placed by the Board of Education in you as a teacher, you brought discredit upon the South Windsor Public Schools, you undermined public confidence and parent trust in you as a teacher, and you put the emotional health of some students at risk. Given the foregoing, your actions constitute “other due and sufficient cause” for the termination of your contract of employment, as that term is used in Connecticut General Statutes, Section 10-151.
Olio went off piste. But who chose the piste in a class for advanced scholars?
The facts on which I base these conclusions and this action are as follows. In your third period AP English class at South Windsor High School on February 25, 2015, you asked your students if anyone had any poems to share, and one of your students showed you his personal copy of the poem “Please Master” by Allen Ginsberg. After reading through the poem twice, you made an informed decision to share it with the entire class despite students warning you to not share the poem due to its inappropriate content, including the student who drew your attention to the poem. Despite his protest, you proceeded to introduce the poem to the entire class. In fact, student interviews characterize that you “insisted” on sharing the poem. This is further evidenced by the inexplicable persistence with which you endeavored to present this poem to students. You did not discuss with any other teacher or administrator your extraordinary decision to present this poem in your class. You did not warn students about the content of the poem nor give them an opportunity to opt out. Rather, you projected the poem on the white board for your students to read, turning out the lights in the classroom. After shutting the classroom door, which was open prior to introducing this content, you made the statement to the class, “I’m not going to say that what happens in AP English stays in AP English, but….” Students reported that your decision to turn off the lights and shut the door was deliberate and added to their level of discomfort.
You could argue, as I would, that studying English suddenly became daring.
In addition, you used your classroom computer to navigate to the website YouTube in order to access a video of the author reading the poem. In order to access that recording, you signed into the system using a username and password that enabled you to access age-restricted content that the YouTube system warns “may contain language, violence or disturbing imagery, nudity or sexually suggestive content, or portrayal of harmfulor dangerous activities.” Students have reported that you also had to turn off the “Safety Mode” in order to gain access to this content. YouTube uses the safety mode system as a second method to “hide videos that may contain inappropriate content flagged by viewers.”… Further, the use of an audio recording in addition to the written word made it almost impossible for a student to opt out. When the recording was over, you then attempted to engage students in a discussion of the poem. According to students in the class, many students were stunned and reluctant to engage in the discussion…
Your actions were deliberate. You made the decision to subject your students to the content of this poem after reading it twice. You had to go through an age-filter to obtain the recording on YouTube, a step that would give any responsible educator pause. You then played the recording of the author dramatically reading this detailed, vulgar and violent poem, subjecting the children entrusted to your care to a four-minute and thirty four second rendition in the author’s own words.
To recaps: this vulgar, violent poem can be read in the approved library but not in class.
After the fact, you have demonstrated that you still do not fully understand the highly inappropriate nature of your decision and its impact… Your initial response during the investigation was to defend your decision rather than acknowledge your failure to exercise the professional judgment required of teachers… Your response is extraordinary for its failure to recognize the harm you may have caused your students or the harm you certainly caused to the parent/teacher trust that is crucial to the educational process. Instead of recognizing the fundamental inappropriateness of presenting such content to high school students, you responded to Mr. Sullivan as though the issue here were one of pedagogy:
Upon continued reflection and in response to your question yesterday about what the kids did not get, I believe students struggled to read the narrator implicitly, which my reading critically required. Instead, they could only read the narrator explicitly (in all seriousness, no pun intended). [Emphasis added]
* * *
I certainly agree with your assessment that interpreting image played a central role, and, coupled with a lack of implicit reading of the narrator, one may see how multiple students did not understand the point of the interpretation during the closing of class. As a result, in reflection on closing, I need to reconsider an even more dynamic purpose of an effective closure.
The fact that you believe this is a matter regarding delivery of instruction rather than the inappropriateness of content is deeply troubling. In responding to Mr. Sullivan, you appear to blame the students and perhaps yourself and your teaching methods for the problems here. In your response, you do not acknowledge the fundamental point that a high school teacher entrusted with the safety of children should not present to a captive student audience a poem with extraordinarily vulgar sexual imagery.
When did school become so safe?