High School Teacher Canned For Teaching Allen Ginsberg's Filthy Buttsechs Poetry
The children of South Windsor, Connecticut, are at long last safe from the pernicious influence of David Olio, who has been forced to resign as an English teacher at South Windsor High School after showing a video of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem "Please, Master" to his Advanced Placement English class in February. The poem, which is definitely not rated PG, apparently upset some students enough that they complained to their parents, so the school suspended and then moved to fire Olio, who had taught at the high school since 1996.
As Slate's Mark Joseph Stern notes, "Please Master" is not typical high school fare, and probably more suited to a college class, but we have to agree with Stern that Olio's decision to share the poem with his class was probably more deserving of a reprimand than the end of a 20-year career. Olio had asked students to bring in poems that they wanted to share with the class, and one student brought in a copy of "Please, Master," in which Ginsberg writes explicitly about an imagined sexual encounter. It's not kid stuff, to be sure; here's the recording of Ginsberg reading the poem (NSFW, needless to say) that got Olio canned:
Yes, it's explicit, and no, it's not something that Yr Dok Zoom would include on a high-school reading list. But as Stern says, it's also not obscene by any legal definition, and it's full of rich cultural allusion stuff, what with being a gay transmutation of the story of "Saint Teresa’s violent visitation by an angel," complete with "ambiguous intermingling of pain and pleasure." So yeah, more appropriate for a college class, especially in a high school environment where parents and some students freak out over the merest mention of sex.
Oh, but the children, the poor innocent children! How they suffered, according to a letter sent to Olio on March 25 by Superintendent Kate Carter:
"The content of the poem is wholly inappropriate for a high school classroom, and it was irresponsible for you to present this poem to children under your charge," Carter wrote. "Some of your students are minors, and you gave neither the students nor their parents any choice whether they wished to be subjected to the sexual and violent content of this poem."
Carter also wrote that several students reported being emotionally upset after hearing the poem.
Squicked out by gay sex, maybe, but emotionally damaged? Probably not. Clearly, Olio should have given students the option of leaving, or should not have shared the poem at all, not because it's a bad poem but because he should have known that people are idiots. Olio seems to have over-estimated the maturity of his students -- juniors and seniors who probably have seen plenty of sex stuff -- but, no, you don't read that in a high school class anyway, you just don't, not when books about the plight of the working poor get challenged because an author cites, very obliquely, a woman's account of being raped as a child.
The real surprise is that Olio had been teaching for 20 years and didn't anticipate quite what a grand mal snit the poem would provoke, artistic merit and academic freedom be damned (which they are, of course). We also can't help but wonder about the student who brought the poem to class to share: was it a kid who found the poem genuinely moving, or, as we suspect -- based on no evidence but the certainty that high-schoolers can be evil bastards -- a troll who wanted to see if they could get naïve Mr. Olio to read a poem with all those "fucks" in it to the class?
If it's the latter, we hope the little shit is proud of him or herself. It's not every day you can set in motion a career-ruining chain of events.
Update: From commenter "Kathy C," a note that the kid who brought the poem in did so with good intentions; Kathy says the student "who brought in the poem spoke at the Board of Ed meeting in defense of Mr. Olio and wants to be a teacher because of him." Yr Dok Zoom is pleasantly surprised to learn that his cynicism was unwarranted in this case! See further comment by Kathy C. on the situation here.
Advice to high school English teachers: Stick to poems about nice things. There's plenty of nice things students can read, and it really doesn't pay to go upsetting people. Maybe that Ted Nugent song about kittycats that Mike Huckabee likes so much.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.