- Sharing Steinbeck with Students
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Sharing John Steinbeck's legacy as one of America's finest authors with young people is possibly one of the most enjoyable experiences a high-school English teacher will have during her teaching career. I personally have been guiding ninth-grade English students through Of Mice and Men for the past ten years. Every year I look forward with some trepidation to introducing a whole new group of young readers to the rich flavors of Steinbeck's California and the sometimes bittersweet earthy characters he so lovingly assembles through his storytelling. I say with trepidation because with every school year, as chairperson of a high-school English department, I have to explain to fearful parents that after reading Of Mice and Men their precious children will not take on the free-spirited language of George Milton, Crooks, or Carlson.
This past year was no different. After issuing a calendar for the spring semester explaining that we would begin reading Of Mice and Men, I had two students greet me at my desk with a request from their parents to phone them immediately. I knew instinctively what it meant. Once more I would have to dig down deep for the right choice of words to explain to their parents why I believed John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was a valuable piece of literature for ninth-grade English students. In the past our district taught Of Mice and Men only to honor-level students. The idea behind this was that this piece of literature was more appropriate for more mature readers. I did not agree with this attitude. After much discussion, a decision was made to teach the novel to all ninth-grade English students across our district. This was a decision I wholeheartedly agreed with even though I knew that I [End Page 167] would probably be in for harsh criticism from a few parents. Historically, the parents I have spoken with truly believed that their child would be morally injured by reading the words John Steinbeck put into the mouths of his characters. This is one of those conversations a teacher has with parents that can leave a teacher speechless, questioning even her own principal.
How does an educator explain to a fearful parent that John Steinbeck loathed racism and yet has his characters use the word "nigger"? How does a teacher explain to a parent that John Steinbeck believed the "writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion and love," as he writes in the Nobel Prize speech, when he writes a novel with characters uttering obscene language and visiting whorehouses? I can honestly say that it doesn't matter how carefully I choose my words, or how adamantly I urge them to simply read the novel for themselves. Their opinions remain the same. I thought this year I might have gained more insight through some of my reading and have more eloquent words with which to change the mind of one parent, but no such luck. The one parent told me there was no morality left in the world anyway and that novels like Of Mice and Men exacerbated the moral decay within our society. She said she only wished they had enough money to put their child into private school where her child would not be influenced by "this" kind of literature.
So, how does an educator make her way through parent- teacher conversations, fraught with landmines of moral judgment and narrow-mindedness, to successfully gain the parents' cooperation? Unfortunately, I have come to only one conclusion. You don't. You simply offer parents a copy of The Pearl, another fine example of John Steinbeck's gifted prose, and hope that some day their child will reach for a copy of Of Mice and Men on their own and find out what a truly wonderful wealth of literature John Steinbeck created for humankind.