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Fighting Under His Eye: One High School Teacher's Tale of Defending Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

High school teacher Megan Volpert shares her letter to parents and teachers about the dangers of censorship and why we must never relent in defending a world based on intellectual freedom—and specifically defending Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

High school teacher Megan Volpert shares her letter to parents and teachers about the dangers of censorship and why we must never relent in defending a world based on intellectual freedom—and specifically defending Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

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 Megan Volpert (photo by Rob Friedman)

Megan Volpert (photo by Rob Friedman)

After 14 years as a public high school English teacher, this I know: don't judge a kid by their ignorant parents. Out here in the north burbs of Atlanta, sometimes I get a kid who is forced to opt out of an excellent book because their parents are full of religious malarkey. And you know what? Every last one of those kids ends up reading the offending book on the sly right away anyway. I know because I ask them and they're honest with me—more honest than they feel they can afford to be with their parents.

(Click to read our Top 10 list of dystopian novels.)

Dear parents, you must stop worrying about what books to hide away from your children and start reflecting on how your conservative general tendency toward censorship causes your children to want to hide things away from you.

Just this autumn, I encountered the worst case of censorious horse manure I'd ever personally seen—perpetrated as it was in that special evangelical mode of vindictiveness in which one does unto others things that they have no right to do. The kid had a choice of summer reading books before embarking on the grand adventure of 12th Grade Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. The mom forced him to choose not The Handmaid's Tale. Sure, no problem—the kid could borrow a friend's Hulu password and get the especially gruesome equivalent starring Elisabeth Moss streaming on his laptop each night after the mom went to bed. But the mom decided not only didn't she want her own kid reading Atwood's novel—she didn't want any of the seniors reading it. In fact, she did not even want it present in our school's library. She was on a mission.

 "censorship socks"

"censorship socks"

So she made paperwork. In the end, we had to convene a panel of over a dozen people from among the staff, the admin, the parents. It was a closed meeting, so the mom's small army of fervent supporters (i.e. her Bible study group) had to hold their literal prayer circle outside the library while we very democratically followed proper procedure to the letter and extremely unanimously took great pleasure in voting her down. I voted against her while wearing my censorship socks. They list The Handmaid's Tale right there on the toe, because Atwood's book has faced no small number of challenges in America's high schools. Yet its story and lessons proliferate so widely in modern culture that even Saturday Night Live judged it a mainstream enough frame of reference for inclusion in a skit on last season's big finale episode a couple months ago.

Let's not drill down into the specifics of her argument—the usual suspects of porn and gore and cursing—nor into our counterarguments. Suffice it to say that the first thing to make the dystopian nightmare America in The Handmaid's Tale possible was that they took away the books. Censorship of a book is hardly about the book at all. True believers though they may be, the parents know not what they do when they make this paperwork for us. And bless us teachers for being surprised by it every time. Still, there's no reason I'd rather iron my good blazer and stay after school for three extra hours than to serve a committee such as the one that defeated this mom. Both sides knew their part and performed it well that afternoon. Yet there is one point on which we certainly agreed: The cultural infighting over which good books to put into the hand of what future great minds is undoubtedly a war of attrition.

Dear teachers, we must not relent in building and defending a world based on intellectual freedom, lest young men like the one in my tale end up with not only wives but handmaids in one possible version of the many futures that loom in the near distance.

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