Something’s missing from the copies of Girl, Interrupted given to 12th graders at New Rochelle High in New York, reports Bob Cox’s Talk of the Sound. The English department chair ripped out pages 64 to 70 of the book, which is required reading, to eliminate two characters’ discussion of oral sex. The book is a memoir of a young woman’s time at a mental hospital in the 1960s. Students were assigned to compare the book with the movie version, which stars Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder.

“The material was of a sexual nature that we deemed inappropriate for teachers to present to their students,” said English Department Chariperson Leslie Altschul, “since the book has other redeeming features, we took the liberty of bowdlerizing.”

Several years ago, Altschul approved the book without reading it at the request of a teacher who’s no longer at the high school. It was taught for at least one year without a problem. But this year someone complained.

“We should either teach a book or not teach a book,” said one New Rochelle teacher who disagreed with the District’s decision. “What sort of message do we send our students when we vandalize books?”

We tell them: Go to the library, get the book and read pages 64 to 70! It’s hot!

Update: New Rochelle High has backed down: Students will get an unripped copy of the book and the school will review its method for choosing assigned books.

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  1. linda seebach says:

    Just wondering, how do you rip out page 64 of a book without also ripping out page 63?

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I slogged through The Scarlet Letter one summer looking for the sexy stuff. I was pretty disappointed. Ditto Madame Bovary.

  3. Joanne,
    You began this post with the words “Something’s missing…”

    I think something’s missing from the education blogs. Bloggers are ignoring a current controversial news story. A social studies teacher in White Plains, N.Y. was teaching a class of 7th graders about American slavery. To demonstrate conditions aboard slave ships coming to America, the white teacher bound the hands and feet of two black girls with duct tape and instructed them to crawl. It has created quite a controversy, but I can’t find any teacher or education blogs which have mentioned it.

    What’s up with that? Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about it? Is it the racism? Perhaps it’s not wanting to contribute to the firing of a teacher. Is there any teaching reason that a teacher should tie up her students?

    I’ve written about it on my blog Ethic Soup and would very much like some comments from educators. To read the article, go to:

    Sharon McEachern

  4. Wow. Ripping pages out of books. That sends a shiver down my spine.

  5. The book “Girl, Interrupted” does not belong in the curriculum not only because of the explicit language but more importantly because it lacks literary merit. There are so many classic novels out there from which to choose- why waste precious class time on pop fiction?

  6. Doug Sundseth says:

    Do you know what the difference between “classic novels” and “pop fiction” is? Thirty years.

    When I first read The Lord of the Rings, for example, it was considered the worst sort of pop fiction — heck, it was popular, and there is no more cutting insult than that. (See also: Dickens, Wouk, Conan Doyle, Kipling, ….)

    None of this is in any way meant to defend or attack Girl, Interrupted, by the way, as I’ve not read it. I intend, rather to attack a specific sort of snobbery that is altogether too common among some readers.

  7. Sturgeon’s law holds for printed works. There’s not enough snobbery in the world.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    I doubt that anyone is reading Booth Tarkington anymore. When I was in school such novels as Penrod had passed from popular to classic. Now they are just outdated.

  9. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Ideally, I like a mix. Classics to anchor a course, and then something more contemporary to bounce off the classics. YMMV. No ripping up books, though.

  10. Mrs. Lopez says:

    I guess I’ll be the old fuddy-duddy then. I wouldn’t want my children assigned a book with sex in it. I wouldn’t cut pages out, I’d just assign a more appropriate book.

  11. And so the typical question when this topic comes up is, what about violence? And wouldn’t that eliminate a lot of the classics? Thoughts?

  12. “What sort of message do we send our students when we vandalize books?”

    Well, first, it can’t be “vandalizing”, since it’s the school’s property, and it has the right to do as it wishes with it; neither the publisher nor anyone else have an overpowering right that pages not be removed from the books, if the owner deems it useful.

    Secondly, the message we send them is that books are not Holy Objects Worthy Of Worship – which, despite the “shivers” produced in some people, seems a worthy tonic to combat the idolisation of The Book Itself.

    (Ironically, I say this as someone who despises marginal notes and highlighting, and will pass on a used book if it has those in any quantity, except in the direst straits.

    But I just can’t get any ire up against Bowdlerisation at the Secondary level, in a textbook.

    When the State prohibits the ownership or sale of un-ripped copies, then there’s a problem worth addressing.)

  13. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Well, obviously it is ok to read about violence and not sex.

  14. Yeah, Joanne should have titled this post “Innovate Teachers Experiment with Literary Mashups”. 🙂

  15. Mrs. Lopez, these are seniors in high school. Do you really think a few pages about oral sex, which would likely not be the topic of classroom discussion, are that inappropriate? From what I’ve seen of today’s teenagers, they are far more worldly and sophisticated than I was at 18 (it’s enough to make me feel a dinosaur at 32), but even I knew what oral sex was as a senior, and had known for a number of years at that point.

    Not to mention that there is A LOT of sex in many classic works (Shakespeare can be exceedingly raunchy and explicit). Is that okay because it’s more oblique? Or because it’s more classic?

    I don’t know about the literary merit of the book, which I have read, but for heavens’ sake, don’t condescend to the kids by suggesting they aren’t capable of reading about sex! It’s the kind of nannying that made me hate high school and love college.

  16. Gosh, count me as a fudddy duddy, too. I don’t care what you want to read as a teen. I was reading adult books all through high school, but I don’t necessarily think that the school should assign one unless it really is of high quality (and perhaps has stood the test of time).

    And yes, Shakespeare is usually okay because he used a lot of innuendo and double entendres to get the point across. I wouldn’t trust a modern writer writing for teens to be so careful.

    And I don’t think our over-exposed teens are any more sophisticated than teens in the past. I think they think they are, which is the problem.

    I say that as someone whose 14-yr. old son just walked by singing “Viva Viagra.”

  17. With respect to patricia, I personally can’t buy the “kids know all about sex anyway” argument. Overestimating our students’ sexual maturity based on our own experience at their age, or presumptions made solely on their media favorites, is a generalization at best, a stereotype at worst. It isn’t a question of whether students know, or have heard of, sex and various sexual acts. It’s about their sexual maturity and ability to process certain ideas and literary presentations of the same. It becomes a much bigger question, in my mind, when teachers make that decision for their students – and put material in front of them which, for the sake of a grade, students must read.

    As a teacher, this is one I would put on a list for reading circles rather than a whole-class read, and I absolutely oppose the school’s “bowdlerizing.” I don’t think it should have gotten to that point at all, actually, and probably needed some serious consideration before-hand to prevent it. However, I very much doubt that the exclusion of a single book is an indication that literature teachers everywhere are saying students can’t, or shouldn’t, read about sex. As patricia pointed out, there are quite a few works in the classical canon which we return to year after year and which, in my experience, may often lead to frank discussions. I also disagree with the idea that in order to get students interested or engaged in literature we have to pander to what *we* perceive as being literature that speaks to their personal experience – we simply can’t cast that wide of a net and in attempting to may go further than is appropriate or comfortable for some of our students.

  18. The only thing that makes Shakespeare “innuendo” and not explicit is that he is using 17th c. language. In his time, he was explicit. John Donne is downright raunchy in some poems. It really isn’t that kids “know all about sex” — but they have been exposed to an awful lot of it without the opportunity to process what they see with an adult. I find the kids are genuinely very interested in discussing these types of scenes in a classroom setting. Usually the sex is symbolizing something anyway.

  19. Thanks, Lightly Seasoned, for your point about Shakespeare being really explicit. That’s what I was getting at with my comment about it being oblique- we don’t object because the language is archaic.

    These are 17 and 18 year-olds we’re talking about. It’s almost a misnomer to call them “kids” in the first place. Teenagers, especially by that age, read about sex, see sex on TV and in the movies, know about sex, and have sex, and have for generations. I think Lightly Seasoned makes a wonderful point, that they rarely have the opportunity to process all that sex with an adult. Redkudu, you talk of the kids being able to process sexual imagery and content- if we are protecting them even at the senior level from “officially sanctioned” sexual content, how are they ever able to process it maturely? Are teachers not there to guide the students through being able to react to depictions of sex not with titters, but with thoughtfulness about what the portrayal is intended to convey?

    Let me say again that I’m not sold on the usefulness of the text as literature at all, which is I think confusing the debate. I agree with Redkudu that we need quality controls in place to ensure that the works the students are reading are of sufficient literary merit, and aren’t chosen just to try to give them something more accessible. If this work reaches that standard, I think it shouldn’t be barred from being taught just because of the sexual content.

    That said, the bowdlerizing is out of bounds in all cases. Teach it whole or don’t teach it. Jeez.

  20. We’re off topic a bit, but if Shakespeare were simply explicit, yet archaic, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been doing Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and other plays in schools all of these years. People still argue about exactly what he means by a word. And, of course, he wasn’t above making up a word if he didn’t like any that were out there.

    Yes, He was absolutely bawdy and there is pretty much a sexual current under much of what he writes, but the breadth and depth of his works gives teachers a lot of options when working with students. I doubt there’s a lot of modern stories that would fit that bill.

    Like Moliere in his time, he was also working under pressure, whether internal (from prose to rhyming iambic pentameter, or simply reflecting the various classes of people in his plays), or external (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Queen).

    And I agree that there are other raunchy things of the era, but you usually don’t have those assignments until college.

  21. Last time I checked there were no explicit discussions included in the Shakespeare I read in high school that even come close to Girl, Interrupted. If there were, the teenager in me feels robbed of an experience.

    How about this… we have high schoolers perform stage versions of Romeo and Juliet and then Girl, Interrupted and count how many parents walk out during the performance. Tell me then that there is little difference between the two.

    The only problem here is that the book got on the list in the first place. But hey, this is the society that gave Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize… try having kids act out her books.

  22. Does acting out mean literal action? I’d hate to see a Romeo and Juliet where actual suicides are performed.

  23. pm –

    I doubt parents would have a problem with the suicides. The love scenes, however, would drive them nuts.

  24. I was thinking of staging it in a similar fashion to that scene in When Harry met Sally – all sound and no action. That might be too humorous for Girl, Interrupted as I’ve never read the book and fell asleep during the movie.