Friday, July 15, 2016

Why We Need Diverse Books

In the late 60s, early 70s, there was not a great selection of YA literature that spoke to the real lives of kids. I devoured the Black Stallion books, but I never found myself in possession of a wild, desert stallion. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden were not kids who walked the halls of my school. A Wrinkle in Time probably came the closest, but there weren’t any other titles that pushed that idea of love and acceptance. By the end of junior high, a sweet librarian had introduced me to books written for adults. I loved James Herriot, devoured Victoria Holt, and I tore through Barbara Cartland’s regency romances. But there were no mirrors in those books, no guidance for a teen girl.

In the spring of 1974 the eighth grade class sat in the auditorium and got our schedule selection sheets for high school. One elective choice stood out to me-vocational agriculture. Ag. Finally, a class that spoke to my heart and my interests. I had lived and breathed horses since I got my first pony at the age of three, and I had visions of becoming a large animal vet. (With that in mind, math and science should have been my focus, but that’s another story.)

As I filled in my choices, people around me were amused. No girl in our rural East Texas high school had ever taken ag. No one was certain that it would even be allowed. That made the pit of my stomach flutter, but I was determined. When I got home, Mother looked at my choices, and as we talked about them, my older sister announced that the only way she would allow me to take ag was if I also took home economics. My choice was to add home ec, or ride the bus. P.E. was out, and home ec was in.

Over the summer I heard a few rumblings that there were people who were not pleased that I was going to be “allowed” to take ag. The ag teacher made it known that I would receive no special treatment, and he expected me to quit in the first few weeks. The boys were certain that I would quit as soon as I had to get dirt on my hands. The adults in my life laughed; I had a reputation for being a spitfire who wouldn’t back down from any argument.

But as it turned out, I wasn’t equipped for this particular fight. I didn’t know that they were going to fight with weapons I couldn't defend against. No adult in my family, ever, cursed or used vulgarity in my presence. Ever. I was just about as sexually na├»ve as a kid could be. To be caught holding hands with a boy was a humiliation beyond endurance. Oh, I knew the basics of reproduction, and I would fling out a “hell” or “damn” in the presence of my friends. But I was about to be introduced to a level of verbal vulgarity that was beyond my comprehension.

I know, in today’s world that just doesn’t seem like a big deal. Back then…remember, they couldn’t run feminine hygiene commercials, and the only bra commercial I recall showed a woman wearing the bra over her TURTLE NECK. Every single day of my 9th grade year began the same way. First period, ag building, across the street from the school. The teacher came in 5 or 10 minutes or so after the tardy bell, and that time was a filth fest. One 14 year-old girl. Twelve or so adolescent boys. And it never let up. Oh, they never laid a hand on me, except for a shove to the shoulder and a laugh when they asked about my possible sexual experiences on our family horse farm. A tampon pulled out of a pocket with the suggestion that I might need it. I quickly heard every possible slang word for penis, vagina, intercourse, orgasms, masturbation. Multiple jokes and stories involving all of the aforementioned. Well, you get the picture. I never looked up, I sat with my head-down feeling as though my body was about to erupt in flames, never spoke a word, and I never told anybody.

That first week of school, we piled into the truck and made a trip to the ag farm. A new-born bull calf made my heart melt. Until the teacher had a boy throw it on the ground, spread its back legs, and hand me a knife. He talked me through the castration process and then poured rubbing alcohol over my hands to remove the blood. When I didn’t quit on the spot, I gained a measure of that teacher’s respect. I became his favorite student, but he still left me in that room every morning.

After I graduated from high school, I went back and talked to him about it. He said that he knew what was going on, but if he had intervened, the boys would have made it their mission to make me miserable outside of that room. He also figured that things would improve in later years. And they did.

But he told me one other thing. He told me something that broke my heart. While the boys weren’t thrilled to have me in their All Boys Club of a class, they would have left me alone in a few weeks. Except for one person. The father of one of the boys. He goaded them all year. He fed them nasty jokes, he told them things to say that he guaranteed them would drive me away. Worse, this was a man I knew. A man I liked. Who smiled at me when I was in his business. Who always spoke kindly to me. Who gave me affectionate side hugs. Who cautioned me when he saw me driving recklessly.

I never recognized that evil in him. I had never read about that kind of adult. And I had never read about a girl who stood up for herself. I needed a Willowdean, a Katniss, a Hermione. I know that my situation was nothing compared to the bullying that happens to our kids who are gay, transgendered, or in some other way unacceptable to some elements of society. But I know that year would have been easier if I had found someone like me in the covers of a book.

If your student is ever in my class, he or she may come home with a book that has a character who is gay, or transgendered, or has a family member with a drug addiction. I’m not trying to pervert your kid. I’m not trying to lead them into lives of sin. I just want them to see other humans, and I want them to realize that it’s not okay to inflict emotional or physical harm on people whose lives are different. I just want them to learn not to be creeps.