“That’s how a chilling effect works: It makes everyone terrified, resulting in self-censorship and preemptive punishments on teachers who transgress some imagined line of propriety.”

-Waldman and Sargent, Opinion | Teachers are under fire in increasingly bizarre ways: One Mississippi educator was fired for reading kids a silly book about butts.
The Washington Post, 3.11.2022

In today’s Washington Post opinion piece, Teachers Are Under Fire in Increasingly Bizarre Ways, authors Waldman and Sargent also write:

“In Idaho, the appropriately titled House Bill 666 would provide jail sentences for teachers or librarians who disseminate “material harmful to minors.”

How, the article wonders, and how (I ask) can librarians do their jobs? How can teachers possibly teach (or enjoy teaching) when the message is that they are probably up to no good? When they are surveilled and scrutinized? How can a teacher be playful, creative, spontaneous, joyful, loud, funny, confident, encouraging, or authentically engaged when she might be fired for the “wrong” expression of any of those qualities?

Claims of harm–and the extremely general denunciation of “harmful” acts — are specious, like calling someone a witch if they act in ways that you decide are disobedient. The proof of a “Witch!” allegation was found (or not) by strapping down and dunking the ostensible witch under water, where, if she drowned, she wasn’t a witch after all– and if she did not drown, she was obviously dangerous and must be burned at the stake. Unlucky was she who ran afoul of the local clique of “Christian” mean girls, who’d smile in smug satisfaction while enjoying the spectacle of their victims running out of air or writhing in the flames.

“Harmful” (the term now thrown at anyone bullies don’t like) is a charge that is used to justify self-righteous attacks against educators who have run afoul of some cabal. The term has no clear or useful definition. It relies upon hearsay. It privileges the accuser’s feelings, words, and perspective over the feelings, words, and perspective of the accused (and over any counter-narratives provided by witnesses, and over curiosity or reason). “You caused harm!” now excuses attacks. Pointing the finger at someone with the claim, “You caused harm!” is like crying out in the public square, “You murdered my child, you Devil!” The imputation is likely to get the accused set upon by an angry mob without any further evidence, much less dialogue.

“Harm” is subjective. In contexts where “harm” is used to fire someone (the teacher in the article reads a book to kids that includes butts and farts, and is out of a job in no time, having thus potentially harmed children) the term “harm” functions as an incontrovertible label. “You caused harm” is used to shut down lively discourse, criticisms of authority, nuanced thinking, and (gasp) humor or other forms of free expression.

Can harm actually be caused by a teacher? Of course, duh. I won’t go into sexual improprieties or assaults here, or patterns of obdurate abuse of power. Let’s just talk about offenses like reading a funny butt book to kids, or challenging college students to think beyond and outside their comfort zones and political scripts. We teachers can and do (all, I imagine) sometimes hurt others, inadvertently or on purpose. That’s the nature of being a person in a room with other people, or a living thing among other living things. Part of the courage needed to be a teacher– to stand, day after day, in front of a roomful of mixed learners (some perpetually mad; some eager; some smart; some not so smart; some hypercritical; some eternally bored)– involves finding ways to connect, to enliven interest, to spark change (for learning is change) while remaining, ourselves, engaged, and hopefully while being present in each moment, even sometimes forgetting ourselves as we enter into classroom conversations. When we forget ourselves– stop monitoring our behavior–we’re way more likely to make a quip, or to speak sharply about a topic we care about, or to accidentally step on a student’s emotional toe because we assumed we’re all on the same friendly page, but we’re not.

Most of the time, if we’re wrong, we say “Oops!” and “Sorry! Misspoke! Didn’t intend offense!” or “Here’s what I meant to say,” or “Won’t happen again.”

To productively deal with alleged harm, prosecutorial types as well as the prosecuted might be wisely advised to be curious and specific: What happened? What was said or done? By whom, to whom, with what effect, according to whom? Was there an error or misperception involved? Was there a physical assault? A verbal assault? Is a conversation in order? An apology? Should mutual understanding be sought, or perhaps not? Was the harm truly egregious? Or maybe were someone’s feelings hurt in a way that might heal after a few hours’ anger and a glass of wine with friends (or even with the purported “harmer” to mend the relationship?)

One remembers, with profound gratitude, being guided or sometimes just propelled through uncomfortable feelings and resistance, by great teachers and librarians… whose business it was to expose students to new ways of thinking; whose life’s calling was to wake students up to their own creative, intellectual and emotional capacities. Thank you, Miss Tyler! Thank you, Monte Henrie! Thank you, Joanie Evans, Casey Kizziah, Lisa Jacobson, Robert Perillo, Fay Simpson, Polina Klimovitskaya.

One remembers being helped to laugh at one’s own ignorance, weaknesses and fears. Thank you, Jimmy Tripp, Mario Siletti.

One remembers experiencing, in school, brilliant moments of insight and growth after having been surprised, even shocked, in transformative classrooms. Thank you, Barbara Dobos!

Gone are those days, thanks to the tyrannical Crusaders (not for anything truly good, only against what they deem bad) who– believing only in their own pumped-up feelings of perfection–cannot imagine how wrong they are, nor acknowledge the harm they, themselves, wreak.

Waldman, P., & Sargent, G. (2022, March 11). Opinion | teachers are under fire in increasingly bizarre ways. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/10/teachers-under-fire-censorship-books/

Here we are, in the thick of Mile High MFA summer season (and, here I am, in the thick of searching for a literary agent and—one is allowed to hope—a great editor and an enthusiastic publisher, all willing to take on my flawed work and help to make it stronger). Thus, writing, criticism, editing, revision and publishing are all on my mind. I came across a 2017 New Yorker article (click, or see below this post) and wondered if others might find the subject as thought-provoking as I do.

The blog post you’re reading now is an example of how easily one can hit a button and find an audience today. But, what we write about and post or publish—what we choose to spend time on and to put before readers in these extremely challenging times (and for what reasons) —seems worth considering. I’d argue it amounts to a matter of conscience. Do we just think, “If I have a feeling, I ought to share it?” Do we assume that our own emotions, encounters and adversities make experts of us in certain domains—or, do we make writing a process of inquiry, researching and reflecting upon subjects whose complexities we might not, at the outset, wholly grasp?

Or, do we respondwith curiosity and commitment, in fresh waysto, say, questions of race and racism, crises of migration and immigration, drug cartels and other indomitable peddlers of misery? The plight of refugees, land use, injustice, poverty, democracy, women’s health and education? Do we interrogate our own entitlements, privileges, personal and social responsibilities, proposing new ways of thinking and telling (our own and others’) stories in ways that illuminate something otherwise hidden in these often tired or frustrating, yet vitally important, discourses?

Ought we investigate and profile innovative and/or courageous figures? Do we research and expose bullies and sociopaths who dominate the halls of corporate and political power? Do we help readers to better understand the nuances of a given local or national challenge, trend or issue?

Ought we raise topics for mutual consideration and open up spaces in which different opinions and values can truly exist? Create fiction that reveals the invisible, gives voice to the unspoken or the unspeakable? Make poetry that, like music, resonates in the bones and expands the soul? Write with self-awareness, humor, generosity and respect for our readers (those who bother, in spite of having their own lives and troubles,  to engage with our work?) Do we seek to understand (or even to acknowledge the lived humanity of) our readers at all?

Ought we gaze into a mirror, see only ourselves, and sob, “Now, there’s someone worth writing about! Especially the sad and unfair parts! The world needs to know how I suffer!”

Ever since Holly Hughes first made me uncomfortable, blew my mind, and opened my pores back in the early ’90s (World Without End), I’ve reacted to personal narrative performances and personal essays in two ways.

First, NO: not if I’m supposed to understand the author as a special case, to applaud the self-appointed, plucky-but-tragic hero, whose condition cannot be matched by my own negligible aches and pains (of which the author knows nothing and about which he cares not at all). He hasn’t earned the right to foist confidences upon me (rapport is a two-way street) and hasn’t considered that I might also have a rich, full set of my own experiences that range from excruciating to ecstatic to terrifying.

But YES—IF (like Hughes) the writer introduces me to a story or subject both intimate and universally relevantsomething she expects that I will recognize and relate to (and, through which she treats me, her voluntary audience, with plenty of respect and empathy, not as a punching bag or as a clueless naif who needs educating).

YES—IF he has worked with a savvy friend, a seasoned editor or a skilled director (to help him understand how he’s actually coming across; that is, IF he’s opened his autobiographical writing to criticism and revision before expecting me to take it in).

YES—IF they are a good (articulate, bighearted, larger-context-oriented) communicator… then, by all means, bring it on: the private, the regretful, the insightful, the comical, the heartbreaking.

Hughes, Spalding Gray, Annie Sprinkle, Julia Sweeney (among many others, all of them performers of deeply personal work) accomplished all that and more. David Sedaris, and Mike Birbiglia (among many others) have made us laugh until we wept at the sorry, awful, wonderful condition of being mortal. J.D. Vance, Jeannette Walls and Tara Westover (among many others) have written with benevolence and empathy about their lives, making the story about the people around them, and about the world, eliciting love for the complicated characters that inhabit their thoughtful autobiographies.

I’m not sure that, truly, the personal essay boom (or personal narrative explosion) is over, as the author of this 2017 New Yorker article proposes. If not, let’s hope more personal essayists follow in the footsteps of those who have made the personal not only about themselves, but about us.

The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over

There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers.