When I was in 8th grade (our high school went from grades 8-12), my English teacher, Miss R. assigned The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. It was published as part of a short story collection by the same name. The story is about Smith, a disillusioned Nottingham teenager from the poor working class who is sent to a reform school for robbing a bakery.
Smith excels at running; he runs for the pure joy of the sport. It becomes his escape from the rigid class structure of post WWII England and his confinement at Ruxton Towers.
The administrators of the reform school want Smith to compete in a cross country race against a prominent public school, and they offer him preferential treatment for the last six months of his sentence if he wins.
Before the race, Smith realizes his win will make his final months “easier;” it not improve the living conditions of the other boys, so nothing will really change. His joy of running is gone – stolen by the ambitions of the administrators. In an act of defiance, Smith runs a brilliant race only to stop a few feet from the finish line. He stands perfectly still while the other runners complete the race.
I loved the story. We discussed Smith’s choices in class. Some felt he should have won the race because it was cheating not to do his best. Others worried the administrators would have found ways to keep Smith at Ruxton Towers to be their champion in other races. We had a few cross country runners in class and some other athletes, so it was interesting to hear their opinions. If you are exceptionally gifted, do you have the right to withhold that gift, or do you have an obligation to compete to the best of your abilities?
One of my fellow students showed the book to his parents. When they discovered it contained profanity, they read it to look for anything objectionable. Along with profanity, they found passages they felt were inappropriate for our grade level, criminal activity, and disrespect for authority figures. Smith, they concluded, was not an acceptable role model for impressionable adolescents. They called other parents and the school board, but not Miss R.
Miss R. was called before the school board to answer for her selection of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, her teaching methods, and her interactions with students.
Students were not allowed to attend the hearing. My mother spoke at the hearing on Miss R’s behalf. She described the proceedings as devolving from parental concern over a book to a witch hunt. Several parents didn’t just want the book banned, they wanted Miss R. fired. After quick deliberation by the members of the school board, Miss R. was officially reprimanded and transferred to another high school in the district that did not have 8th graders.
I was angry and confused. The parents who complained were all good people. Their children were my friends. These parents wanted to do what they thought was best for their children. They were honest, hard-working, caring people you could count on in times of need. How had this happened?
The more I read, the more I questioned their behavior. When I had children, I started to understand, but not agree with their actions. The year before high school is an important one – a transition from child to young adult.
As parents, one of the hardest things we do is let our children grow up and think for themselves. We want to protect them from anything we feel they are not mature enough to handle, but we can’t. We have to pick our battles, and we have to trust the schools and the teachers educating our children to determine age appropriate reading material. We have to read with an open mind and teach our children to read with open minds. If you go looking for something objectionable, you will find it.
The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom maintains a list of frequently challenged children’s books such as all of Judy Blume’s novels, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants book collections, and even Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.
If you are concerned about what your child is reading, contact his or her teacher and discuss your concerns with an open mind. Once our kids reach high school, we need to let them make their own decisions about books. Be available in case they want to talk about what they are reading, but be supportive and be there with an open mind.