Ages 13-17 (Teen)EducationReligion

This Jew Bleeds: Your Kid and Problematic Reading Assignments

I anticipated any number of problems arising from transitioning my kid back to public school – the early mornings, the piles of homework, getting called to the office because she said fuck in class (again).

What I didn’t expect was that I might be objecting to what she was reading in English

What! Me? The radical steel-buckle progressive?  The parent who let her nine year old read Kafka?  (In the Graphic Novel version, and I don’t know if let is actually the best verb, since she was reading it before I noticed, but still.) (“Mom?” the little voice piped up behind me, as she was halfway through The Penal Colony. “What is this machine doing to this guy?”)

Still.

The first part of the year was fine.  It’s AP English.  They read The Odyssey.  They read Antigone in the Fitzgerald translation.  This is wonderful.  This is lovely!  They read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and then Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” which – while it’s not Antigone – is not a terrible choice for a tenth grade classroom.  I’m still with him!

But then my kid comes home.  “I’ve got terrible news for you, Ma.”Drawing of Ayn Rand

“What?”

“It’s pretty bad.”

“What?” I look up from the essay I’m grading.

“We’re reading Anthem for English.”

Ayn Rand?  Ayn RAND?

I did my best to remain calm.  She was bringing the book home to read – it’s relatively short, if you’re not familiar with the works of the Evil One – and I read it, on the off chance that I might be mistaken, that Ayn Rand might (in fact) have something of value to say, or might be a misunderstood genius.

Yeah, no.  My longer review is here, if you are interested, but shorter Anthem: Community Bad, Self Good (and Self=Man, by the way.  Women are made to kneel to men).

Plus a nice dose of Eugenics, despite all Rand’s claims to the contrary, since anyone who is not physically and mentally superior, as Rand is defining superior, has no right to survive in her world.

So, that was my first misgiving.  But since a little notice stuck to the inside cover of the paperback informed us that these books had been donated by a Libertarian Vitamin King, I decided maybe the English teacher (who seems very smart and savvy) had no choice but to use them.  The way he taught it, and the assignments he gave, kind of reinforced this.

Then came the next assignment: The Merchant of Venice.

Now part of AP English is reading a Shakespeare play.  That’s one of the requirements.  But – this play?

Last night, reading the critical essay that was assigned to accompany it (written in 1899, ffs) my kid was sobbing in her room.

“Do you think he knows I’m Jewish?” she asked me, talking about her teacher.  “Do you think he even knows that Shylock is an insult?  That people use it to insult Jews?”

“I don’t know, baby.  This is such a Christian enclave.”

“Everything in the play.  Jew this and Jew that.  It just hurts me.”

“You can say that.  You can raise your hand in class and say that.”

“I’m afraid I’ll start crying.”  She was crying as she said it.  “And Jessica is worse.  She’s only good because she’s converting to Christianity. I hate this play!”

“Do you want Dad to come talk to your teacher?  You know he will.”

Dr. Skull already wanted to when he found out what they were reading.  He couldn’t believe they were reading Merchant of Venice, his point being that there are 37 different Shakespeare plays that could be used, so why use this one, which is has at its heart anti-Semitism. He only didn’t go in and talk to the teacher because I stopped him.  I was against intervention, not wanting to be those parents, and also the kid was really against it – she prefers to handle her own problems.

It is, by the way, the father-daughter relationship in this play that hurts my child the most.  None of the students in her class, she points out, even know any Jews.  This Shylock is the only Jew they are going to encounter.  His treatment of Jessica is how they will believe Jewish fathers treat their daughters.  “That’s not what my father is,” she told me, crying in my arms.  “My father doesn’t even care about money.  My dad loves me!”

“Of course he does,” I said helplessly.

“Well, this stupid play,” she said.  “Why are we reading this stupid play!  Why isn’t the teacher saying how stupid it is?”

I started this post with the thinking that I would give some advice for how to deal with the issue of how to handle problematic reading assignments given to your child in school.  But, in fact, I don’t have all that much advice to give you.

Here’s the advice I do have so far:

  • Talk to your kid.
  • Listen to your kid.
  • Read the assignments yourself, so you can (maybe) understand just how problematic they are (or aren’t).
  • Ask your kid what she thinks would help. Do that if you think she’s right.
  • But don’t be afraid, if you think she’s wrong, to talk to the teacher and the school administrators.
  • But bear in mind – as well – that sometimes people, including your child, do need to read things (even Ayn Rand) that are stupid, boring, or just don’t agree with their world view.

 

They may even need to read hate speech. I don’t know about this one though.  And yes, I know it’s Shakespeare.  It’s still hate speech.  Maybe there really are some works — even by Shakespeare — that we really don’t need to read anymore.

 

(Image Credits: Painting by Thomas Gray of Shylock and Jessica, 1868; A Poster of Ayn Rand)

 

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delagar

delagar

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

19 Comments

  1. November 3, 2014 at 2:30 pm —

    That sounds really tough. The one thing I think I might have tried was asking her if she wanted to meet with the teacher with us. Let her talk, but be there at the meeting supporting her.
    It is especially troubling since there are so many great Shakespeare plays. I’m curious to hear about the teacher’s lesson plans for Merchant. Did he seem to recognize the hateful stereotypes it portrays?

  2. November 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm —

    I think he did recognize the anti-Semitism, but saw it — as many people do — as Shakespeare sort of teaching his audience that Christians were wrong to be mean to Jews. The criticism he had them read supports that reading. But I just don’t see that in the play. My kid doesn’t either.

    Your suggestion about getting her to talk to the teacher, with me there as support, is a good one. I might try that. She’s so very fond of this teacher, though. I think (among other things) she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. He *is* a great teacher, overall.

    • November 3, 2014 at 3:49 pm —

      If he is a great teacher overall, he should appreciate the courage it takes for your daughter to come in to talk to him about this.

  3. November 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm —

    Oh — and BY THE WAY: my kid requests that I make it clear to everyone that she has not said fuck in class EVEN ONCE.

  4. November 3, 2014 at 8:15 pm —

    It’s unlikely that your daughter will be the only Jewish student this teacher ever has. Someone should probably say something to him about this.

    Did he encourage the students to take a critical view of the message in Anthem?

    • November 4, 2014 at 11:13 am —

      Sort of. He had them write on various questions about the messages the book was sending.

      He could have been MOAR CRITICAL, IOW, in my opinion. 🙂

      My kid has determined that she is going to confront the anti-Semitism in class. Good for her, I say.

  5. November 4, 2014 at 8:41 am —

    I totally feel your daughter’s pain…. I grew up in a rural area and was the only Jewish kid in the class in sixth grade when we read The Diary of Anne Frank. The teacher was not really great about it and asked me all sorts of inappropriate questions in class (“As a Jew, what are your thoughts on the Holocaust?” and “I don’t understand why none of the Jews fought back. They just went like sheep to the slaughter. Metcodon, any comments?”). However, this was just the first of many times in my life, for better or for worse, I had to be the ambassador of my minority to the world. It’s not fair to place this burden on a child but it is also an opportunity to discuss with the class why stereotypes are hurtful. It’s a great lesson for your daughter as to why standing up for minorities (especially when she’s not one) is important. I think this is a chance to turn pain into a supper power and also help the teacher and the class see the pain and isolation of others. In fact I think reading the racist literature of the past is an excellent opportunity to learn how the “traditions” of today could be the shame of tomorrow. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.

    • November 4, 2014 at 11:18 am —

      “I don’t understand why none of the Jews fought back. They just went like sheep to the slaughter” <– Jesus, this. I can't tell you how many times (Here in Bible country) I have had Xtian students say this to me. And when I tell them that Jews *did* fight back, or I try to explain to them what conditions were like under Nazis, they just give me that blank stare. Because, you know, THEY would have been JUST LIKE BRAVEHEART.

      • November 4, 2014 at 12:56 pm —

        Yes that was particularly unpleasant, and I didn’t have the answers so ready this time. I know this is impossible to truly explain to a teenager, that this event is the first of many in a life time and not THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER. But the truth is that this situation is good practice for real life, and there is (probably) a sympathetic moderator to the discussion in the form of a teacher (not the case in many real life conversations).

        To the Braveheart thing… Sigh, people have a lot of trouble understanding the desire for self preservation for the sake of your family, who would probably appreciate you alive rather than dead on a high horse.

        • November 4, 2014 at 3:13 pm —

          Maybe your daughter could suggest that the class read Night afterwards? I grew up in a relatively Jewish area (not majority, but enough that probably every class had a couple or more), so that helped some, but reading Night in High School was a pretty important experience in learning about the horrors.

      • November 5, 2014 at 5:32 pm —

        Even now, it’s unlikely anyone in Western Europe would fight back. The State has much tighter control over things than the USA; people are tracked from birth to death. Virtually every acre has been populated for centuries, so it’s very hard to drop out of sight. There’s no place to hide and get your resistance movement together. You would be just a few people who have no experience whatsoever in fighting armed, trained police. Note that, despite mythology, “fighting back” hasn’t worked for oppressed minorities in the USA, either.

        It’s also important to note that the strategy of just lying low and waiting for the storm to pass had been a mostly successful strategy in the past. If you’re dealing with an anti-semitic mob, fighting back is likely to just get them even more worked up, whereas if you just get out of their way, sooner or later they get bored and hungry and go home. They had had no experience with genocide practiced with industrial thoroughness and efficiency.

        they did try leaving the country. Jews did leave — or try to leave — Germany after the Nazis took over, but they were mostly not welcome anywhere.

        Jews in other countries — like the non-Jews there — mostly didn’t believe that what was going on in Germany would reach them. Anne Frank’s family moved to the Netherlands to escape the Nazis and no doubt assumed they were safe.

        • November 6, 2014 at 8:44 am —

          Jews did fight back, though — that’s the thing. We have this narrative that gets pushed, that the European Jews lined up like docile sheep, filled in forms, marched onto the trains, stood in nice lines in the camps, and “let” themselves be killed. The reality was wholly other, of course.

          We have the same narrative for slaves, in both North and South America, how they just “let” themselves be enslaved, how they didn’t ever resist. Again, the true story is entirely different. Resistance was constant and often violent and often successful. Why don’t we ever hear the stories of resistance? That’s a great question.

          It’s what really (really really) pissed me off about that Schindler’s List movie. WTF is Steven Spielberg (a Jew!) doing making a movie about a White Savior saving some Jews? Why can’t he make a movie about one of the many, many (many!) stories of the Jews who saved themselves?

          What is it in our culture that just won’t hear the story of the oppressed who rise up and save themselves?

  6. November 7, 2014 at 8:59 am —

    I don’t know… I think both stories are important. The story of non Jews who stepped up is important to show that not all people were passive bystanders, even in the face of mechanized evil. The story of the oppressed fight back (partisans, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising) is important to tell to show that we were not merely victims. For that matter, to get back to the topic that kicked this conversation off, the story of a thousand years of ghettos and European marginalization of Jews (like in the Merchant of Venice) is important to show that the Holocaust happened in context. Hitler didn’t invent the Ghetto or the blood libel, he just used it to greater effect than anyone else.

    • November 7, 2014 at 1:11 pm —

      I don’t disagree with you, metcodon.

      But — and I don’t know, it might be confirmation bias on my part — it just seems to me that all we do hear about is that story: the Good Christians Save The Jews story. The Good White Folks Save the Slaves Story. I mean, look at Lincoln — going by that movie, you’d think Lincoln freed the slaves all on his own. No black people involved at all!

      Certainly there’s a place for Non-Jews and White People Who Saved The Slaves. But we have *heard* that story. The white guy as hero story. The Other as victim who needs saving story. Hasn’t it been told enough? How about we tell the story where the Others rise up and save themselves?

      The Warsaw Ghetto, as you point out. But there is also Primo Levi. There were uprisings at scores of camps — many of these successful — no one ever hears about these — there was localized resistance all through Europe. A pretty good movie (which got almost no play) about one of these resistance groups is Defiance. My favorite resistance fighter was Hannah Szenes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Szenes. She kicks ass.

      My point — and I do have one — this resistance isn’t taught. My students know nothing about it. What they hear is that Jews lined up, filled out forms, walked like sheep into the gas chambers. Which is just bullshit.

      We should be teaching the truth, which is how the oppressed resist. Because that matters.

      More here: a lot more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_resistance_under_Nazi_rule

      • November 7, 2014 at 4:49 pm —

        Thanks for the link! It was very educational. I have only heard of the Warsaw uprising before.
        Another aspect to consider – the vast majority of the scientists who developed the atomic bomb were Jewish. Just saying.

      • November 8, 2014 at 8:03 am —

        If you can, find a copy of “Fighting Back” by Harold Werner recounting his time with the Parczew partisans (not the same group as the one portrayed in ‘Defiance’, which gives you an idea of how resistance was widespread). It still haunts me.

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