The Perils of Penelope and the Spectacular Side-Effects of Censorship

There are things that I remember. I remember trying to reach the doorknob when we moved into a new house, but my fingertips barely brushed its underside. I remember the smell of my great grandmother’s powder, which always sat in a crystal dish on her dresser. I remember turning a refrigerator box into a very, very, VERY temporary swimming pool in the backyard one summer when I was about six years old. I remember picking blackberries on the side of the road with my mom and sister. I remember so much more, and I am blessed to have these great memories of my childhood.

Then, there are memories that I cherish. One particular memory is of my dad, “Pops,” reading to me as I sat in his lap. I was probably around four years old at the earliest I can remember. I know there were many, many different books and stories that he shared with me as I was growing up. The one that stands out – no, SHOUTS out in my mind was a simple Sesame Street story called, The Perils of Penelope.

Chances are, many of you have at least some memories of Sesame Street. I’m sure most of you watched the television show on PBS. Like me, you grew up with Big Bird, Grover, Bert & Ernie, Snuffleupagus, and Oscar. Oh, and let’s not forget Susan and Gordon, Maria and Luis!
   

My memory of having Pops read The Perils of Penelope with me, though, are very special. It wasn’t just the story, but spending time with him. I don’t really remember all of the predicaments that Penelope found “herself” in throughout the story. One of the main reasons I remember it so vividly is that, when reading, Pops would invariably pronounce the name, Penelope, as “Penny-lope” (lope rhymes with soap). At this point, I had not had any formal schooling, no PreK or daycare. Nobody had explicitly taught me to read beyond Sesame Street and my parents and older sister singing the ABCs to me. Every time my Pops would say “Pennylope” I would giggle hysterically and claim, “That’s not what her name is! It’s Pen-EL-O-PEEEE!” I’m sure that at some point, someone told me what the name actually said and that I was not in fact a preschool genius. But, knowing that Pops was getting it wrong and I knew the correct way to say it made me feel like I was already a reader. Everyone in my house was reading something every day, from a menu to a magazine to a novel or, in my mother’s case, the Reader’s Digest. Reading with Pops made me feel like I was part of the club, that I knew how the world worked, and that I would be able to do anything I set my mind to. I believe that the time that he, and my mother and sister, spent reading with me truly built up my confidence as a reader as well as an absolute enjoyment from it.

As a teacher, especially with my 4th grade class, there have been times that I mispronounced a word or two while reading. Sometimes this was intentional, to see if anyone would catch it. When they did, they were so very proud of themselves for being able to “teach the teacher!” After the first time it happened, my students were always on the lookout for any mistakes that I might have made. Not only did my mistakes help them learn the correct way to do/say/write something, but it also showed them that even educated adults sometimes make mistakes, and that it is okay to make a mistake as long as you try to learn from it. This really helped me foster a sense of learning security in my classroom. In addition, since I still constantly read, having my students see me reading for pleasure and information on my own, without making it something they are forced to participate in at every turn, has helped increase their reading motivation. Whether they are in Kindergarten or high school, most students want someone to look up to and emulate. By sharing a positive example of reading, I hope that many will follow my lead and gain a true love of the written word.

Fast-forward from Four-Year-Old Me to Eight-Year-Old Me.
(Or 2 1/2-years to 6-years, since I found these pictures…so picture me a little older)

 

I was in the third grade. Many things happened in my life in the third grade, it seems. My great grandmother passed away that year and my teacher didn’t make me go out to recess for a few weeks while I was grieving. She sat inside with me for the entire 30 minutes of recess for about two weeks and just let me play or read quietly, or she would talk to me about different things. That year I won the spelling bee at my school and then was automatically entered to be in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram Spelling Bee. I never actually made it to the Bee, though, because I was so nervous and had such terrible stage fright that I became physically ill. The alternate from my school went, instead, and he was two years older than I was and lost to me because he couldn’t spell the word, “football!” Needless to say, he did not progress very far in the Bee.

Something else happened to me in the third grade. I discovered Judy Blume. My childhood love affair with books began, obviously, way before the third grade. When I checked out a copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in my school library, however, things begin to get really crazy. First, a little more background about my upbringing: I grew up in a loving, caring, churchgoing family where “butt” was considered to be a bad word and bodily functions performed outside of the privacy of your own bathroom would be utterly unspeakable. If you’ve ever read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, you might know where I’m headed with this (or at least think you know). So, I checked out the book and began reading it at school on a Friday. I pretty much finished it that night at home in bed, except for a few pages, which I proceeded to read the next day sitting comfortably on the couch in the living room. As I was finishing the book, I’m sure I was smiling and giggling out loud at some parts. I think I even made a comment to my mom about how funny the book was. After I was finished with it (so glad I got to the end!) she asked me about it and what parts were funny, like good parents everywhere who encourage their children to read by taking an interest.

Well, although I can’t remember the exact passage that I read to my mother, I am fairly certain that it contained the word, “fart.” Oh, boy. That was it. Mom told Pops that the book I was reading was inappropriate, and since he was on the school board, he needed to do something about it. He inevitably agreed that the book was “too old” for children my age (even though it really wasn’t, and was one of the funnier and most relatable books I had read up to that point). My parents took the book away and read through it. I’m convinced that they still had no idea what the book was actually about, but were simply looking for “bad words” or things that were “inappropriate.” The issue was brought up at a school board meeting and I am pretty sure that the book was pulled from the elementary school library, at least for a time, along with other Judy Blume books in the same series. I have no idea whether or not that library has a copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing on their shelves today, but I only hope they do.

I spoke with my mom today about the book. She didn’t really remember what the hubbub was all about, either, but she remembered that the author was Judy Blume and she knew that the issue had something to do with bodily functions. My dad passed away when I was in middle school, but he most likely would have laughed along with my mom today as we were remembering that time. My mom chuckled and apologized at the same time, telling me that she hoped it didn’t cause any psychological scarring. She also said that whatever the actual issue was back then would seem completely ridiculous today. I thanked her, not for totally embarrassing me since my friends found out my parents were “book banners,” but because after that incident, I made it a point to read things I wasn’t necessarily “supposed” to be reading. I read The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl before they were ever assigned to me just because they were considered by people somewhere to be somehow controversial. AND I enjoyed every one of them, even when I had to read them again for school and in so doing, gained a better understanding of each. I read books that get bad reviews in addition to the bestsellers, because it’s obvious from things such as the ALA’s Banned/Challenged Book List that the opinions of some people don’t always mesh with my own, very valid opinions. I am just thankful that my personality allowed me to go in the opposite direction after my parents tried to impose their own skewed, if well-intentioned, censorship on my entire school. Thanks to them, I have a mind of my own and I read what I want…and I read a lot…and I always try my best to get my students to do the same.

In my experience with middle and high school, if a student discovers that a book has been challenged and that someone has tried to have it banned, their curiosity is immediately piqued. They want to know why someone objected to it and they usually want to read it to see if it really is “bad.” I am lucky to have been able to guide students toward interesting and substantial literature in this way, while still taking into account the sensitivities that some families may have toward certain topics. Giving students choices and keeping parents/families informed of what we are learning and discussing in the classroom helps dispel possible controversy or complaints. I firmly believe that it is not my job to give students an opinion about anything, but it is to responsibly guide them and give them tools to form their own. And, once they have formed an opinion, even if it changes multiple times over the course of the school year or their lives, I try to respect it.

I could think of a million different things – strong memories and those that flitter by occasionally – that have shaped my literacy and my teaching. I hope that someday, a memory of me and what I have taught will help form another person’s literacy memory.

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