Popehat is pleased to welcome back Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, for another guest post. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.
Ask any university professor in the country, and she’ll tell you that trigger warnings are a hot topic on her campus. That sounds good, right? Alerting students to a potentially sensitive or controversial issue before addressing it class? Oh, except that saying a topic is “hot” might connote something sexual; using the word “trigger” might call to mind gun violence; and issuing a “warning” is something that most professors fear with students these days, in this customer-service culture of education.
Ask any parent of a high school student, and she’ll tell you that schools see protecting students as an essential part of their mission. That sounds good, too, right? We need lockdown drills and secure buildings and assemblies on drugs and alcohol. Oh, but not conversations about the sensitive topics that lie in wait in books like The Color Purple or All’s Quiet on the Western Front – those might offend someone. Romeo and Juliet? Well, they were in love – except that they were actually engaging in statutory rape, and their families battled each other, and then there’s that whole suicide thing. Oedipus? Well, he had that mother hang-up – but maybe we shouldn’t talk about it, because that’s about sex and, OMG, incest. Let’s read The Mousetrap instead.
I’m both a university professor and the mother of high school students, and I’ve learned there’s at least one thing that both educational settings have in common – a small number of offended students or parents may control the conversation, taking it away from the majority of the school community that believes that debating controversial topics is the very essence of education. (And, yes, I know about Erika Christakis at Yale, and yes, I know that’s what got her unfairly shunned, and yes, I realize that I’m probably making the same point here, but not as well as she did.) But I have to speak out, because parents and kids who are afraid – of Sondheim, no less – are setting the agenda for our schools these days, just as so many did when Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Judy Blume’s Forever were removed from school library shelves.
This week, at my children’s top-notch suburban public high school, I had my first experience with a trigger warning for high school students. The issue? The spring musical.
Yeah, I know. These are high school kids. They’re cute and enthusiastic and creative. And they’re doing a musical! Disney made about a zillion bucks turning that concept into gold a decade or so ago.
So where’s the trigger?
In this case, it was the musical itself, Company, a lesser-known Stephen Sondheim work – you know, the dude who won a Pulitzer? The school picked the musical at the end of the spring semester last year. The kids prepared and auditioned a couple of weeks ago. When the cast list went up, the school halls were full of a whole bunch of rapturous mini-thespians in leg warmers.
Now, I’m going to admit that Company has some racy scenes. The male lead romances a lot of different women (notice that I avoided the “s” word (sex) and the “b” word (bed). Because, triggers.). Some of his friends smoke pot. One of his friends is an alcoholic who smokes tobacco cigarettes.
OK. So, would you let the kids do the play? Well, as the parents of the girl who was cast in the role of a woman who gets really, really high on stage and then acts really, really dumb, my husband and I answered “heck yes.”
Because, real life situations. Because, kids already cast. Because, statistics (about the “s” word and the “b” word and the “p” word (pot)) show that the kids already know about and even do this stuff. Because, Sondheim. Because, not High School Musical. Because, education. For the audience and the kids.
Yesterday, the kids were told that the show was being killed.
Except I don’t think they used the word “killed” with the kids. Because, you know, trigger.
And why? I know why, but I’m going to let you guess. Let’s just say that I’m not authorized to give out that information. You’re pretty smart. It has to do with another “p” word. But no more hints. Because the “p” word involved didn’t let other “p’s” have a voice. And that “p” is thus far anonymous and probably mostly so because the “p” doesn’t want other “p’s” to know that he or she is the one that made the ruckus. And the school had to deal with the offended “p.” Because, well, triggers.
But now I have a very disappointed daughter, and the school has a whole cast of kids who are being taught that if you get up in arms about something and say it offends you, you can shut down a whole class. Or get a professor who has offered a different perspective to resign. Or cancel the spring musical. Even when you have a totally enlightened musical director and the most awesomesauce principal on the planet.
The kids and the director are talking now about what show they’ll do instead. Schoolhouse Rock and Legally Blonde have been raised as possibilities. But I’m pretty sure that there’s someone out there who will think that “Conjunction Junction” is about “but” and “yet” getting it on (oooh, and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” – the subtext just screams “drug dealing”). And the bend and snap? We don’t want to send a message that girls should be crushing on boys, and we definitely do not want them to snap and grin – that’s just asking for trouble. That whole scene will have to go.
It will have to go, just like our kids’ exposure to stuff that’s real, like drugs and alcohol and sex and tough marriages and guns. And their chance to fictionally explore those things, to talk about them thoughtfully, and to seize the opportunity to educate. And, hey, their experience of a semester singing Sondheim.
Because what’s most important? Making sure no one’s offended.
Send in the clowns.
Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books. She notes that she is Jewish, the high school fall play was A Christmas Carol, both her kids participated, and she did not say a word. Because, Dickens.
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