Anxieties over book by Angelou misplaced

January 13, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On that long-ago spring morning on which Mr. Cooper, 10th-grade biology teacher at Baltimore City College, delivered his annual lecture on human sexuality, he opened with a $H warning: There will be no snickering today. Any snickerers will be removed from class.

Silence filled the room. Sexuality was pretty funny stuff for mass consumption, but we seemed to be sitting on the cusp of something important here, something about which we'd heard mainly rumors, something the big kids seemed to know but we puny 10th-graders didn't quite. This was now the official unearthing of Great Secrets, and who wanted to risk missing them by something as childish as a snicker?

It was the day we learned about human reproduction. It was, as it turned out, pretty boring stuff, owing to Mr. Cooper's insistence on using scientific terms and explanations that seemed to involve something called spermatozoa swimming up the Columbia River. But we walked out of the room an hour later feeling that maybe something important had happened back there.

We'd been handed information from the adult world. However boring, however much of it we later pretended we'd already known, adult material had been shared with us. Our maturity had been tested, and we'd handled it reasonably well.

Only one kid had snickered. Years later, he became a clinical psychologist, but that's another story. Today's story is about sexuality, and how uncomfortable it sometimes makes us, and about parents knowing when the time has come to trust their children with certain material.

The latest controversy comes out of Anne Arundel County, where pressure from certain parents has succeeded in removing Maya Angelou's marvelous book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" from the ninth-grade school curriculum.

The book is Angelou's account of her childhood in the rural South. It won the 1970 National Book Award. It happens that the book contains certain vulgar words, and descriptions of rape, of abuse and of sexual anxiety about lesbianism, all of which some parents found too explicit for the emotions of 14-year-old youngsters.

The parents are certainly entitled to their anxieties and their desire to maintain some control over their children's lives, though I think they're misplaced and overwrought. In both cases, we need to talk about context.

This isn't some sleazoid movie broadcast on the local cable channel that Dad quietly subscribed to and mistakenly figured nobody else in the family would discover. It's a work of art, in which sexuality - even rough, painful sexuality - is only a part of a story involving pain of all sorts easily identifiable to adolescents and other human beings.

In fact, though, we do live in a world where Dad signs up for the pay-TV sex channel on cable, which the kids discover when nobody's home; where the evening TV news brings us the weeping of mothers over kids slain in drug deals; where the morning radio jocks toss around expletives; and the kids come home from school to watch talk shows involving girls who steal their mothers' boyfriends; and there are sex chat rooms on the Internet; and at midday on the talk radio station the sex therapist wishes to discuss bondage.

In Sun reporter Dail Willis' story yesterday on the removal of Angelou's book, one protesting parent declared, "The sexual content - that was my entire problem with it. I was blown away by really explicit sexual details in the book. All that is, is fodder for the lunchroom "

Exactly! And how wonderful! At its very best, education is the sharing of information. One person says, Here's what I think it means, and another person says, Here's what I think it means. And out of this great exchange of ideas, we arrive at the truth of things instead of each isolated individual wondering, Am I the only one here who's different? Am I the only one with these strange thoughts?

Maya Angelou's work - the work of any artist - tells them otherwise. It says, here is a piece of the human condition. Maybe you can identify with it, and maybe you can't, but it's out there and talking about it adds to our store of knowledge about it.

Those parents protesting Angelou's book come from an honest place. They wish to protect their children's innocence, as we all do. But the kids, living in a world that bombards them with information of all kinds, have their own agenda: They wish the truth. They want to be let in on all the great secrets.

Our job is to share with them in the most sensitive ways we know how: with works of art and literature, and with the hopes that they'll sit in a room with trained teachers, and with other boys and girls, to discuss the things they've been told in a way that enlarges their understanding and their maturity. And then to come home, and to share with their parents the great secrets that they've learned - or, at least, the ones they think Mom and Dad are mature enough to handle.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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