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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Black T-shirt with 17 Banned Books

I don’t have a habit of staring at T-shirts and what’s written on someone’s chest. But I could not ignore this woman’s black shirt with a row of books lined up on it. It turned out the wearer was a woman who had been a high school English teacher, as I was back in the 1970s. Both of us had taught many of the books on her shirt. Of the seventeen on it, I had read all but two and taught five books multiple times. They were Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Maya Angelo’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Encountering this T-shirt (besides the ire it caused) made me recall my years of teaching in the Napa Valley. I thought of a group of juniors I’d taught at Napa High: students not headed to college, a rough bunch, largely male, and the class right after lunch in an auxiliary classroom. My best laid plans for these students usually went awry… until we read Of Mice and Men aloud, slowly. Then we read this short novel a second time to discuss it. Somehow, I was able to get a PBS dramatic performance of Steinbeck’s novel to show in class for two days. And given the novel’s structure, we took parts and performed Of Mice and Men. One afternoon an especially difficult young man said, “Miss Kenna, I’m never gonna forget this book as long as I live.”

Why did Steinbeck’s novel work with these adolescents? A lot of them had gone through school and ‘learned’ they weren’t smart in an academic way. Most came from an area outside Napa, close to Kaiser Steel and the Vallejo shipyards. Many assumed that is where they would end up.

Of Mice and Men allowed us to talk about the Great Depression, the novel’s setting of Soledad in California, the reality of Lennie as severely limited in mind but unfortunately, not in his body. These were tough kids, but they did not laugh at Lennie’s need to touch rabbits, pet puppies, and to stroke Curley’s wife’s silken hair. The students quickly grasp George’s dream of having a place of his own and giving Lennie a permanent home. Crooks, a black man, shares this dream, as does the farmhand Candy. Loneliness pulsates in Steinbeck’s novel and its rawness and realism reached these students. Who didn’t know a Curly, a tyrant and son of the boss? What was Curley’s wife going to do, married to a bully, but try to appease her loneliness in destructive ways? And George’s action to shoot Lennie to protect him was one they understood. The students knew Steinbeck was being truthful and respected him for it, along with simple prose that resonated in their heads and hearts.

Why has this novel been banned, not just now, but also in the past? Nothing I read in terms of reasons for banning it made any sense. But I thought it interesting that in 2003 in the BBC’s Big Read, Of Mice and Men was number 52 in the U.K.’s ‘best loved novel’. And before the pandemic, PBS staged a similar contest in the USA. To Kill a Mockingbird came in first as the most loved novel in our nation.

Recently, while listening to NPR one morning, I heard Dr. Shapiro from Columbia University discuss the recent banning of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare a threat to young minds? The interview left me speechless. I thought of teaching this play in San Antonio, Texas, before the move to Northern California in early 1969. My students were largely Latino, but Harlandale High had no ESL program. I was able to secure a recording of Romeo and Juliet, and with it I used the small novel, West Side Story. The latter brought Shakespeare’s play to life for the students. They could accept the difficulty of the Bard’s language because they understood about gangs and first loves from a modern setting in New York City. We also read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck’s The Pearl. The school used the same sophomore literature text I’d had in high school. What’s worse is that I had to pay for any ditto paper I used. This is why I took the one dollar for supplies, which each student in four sophomore classes had to pay me, then asked a favor of the the school’s young librarian. She bought a class set (30) of four novels in paperback for me and never told anyone. And I never sought permission to do what I did during the four months I taught there; and I never put this high school on my resume. I was not fired but left because husband Mike had completed USAF pilot training and C 141 school and had been assigned to Travis AFB in Northern California. The salary at Harlandale was $5,000 for the school year, so my four months were pro-rated. In the Los Angeles School District in 1967 & 1968, I had been paid $8,000. And in L.A. I was given “free” supplies.

This all came back because of that T-shirt. Until next week….

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