Managing Print Editor
16 May, 2023
Every student has read something in a book that has made them uncomfortable. Whether it be descriptions of violence or racism, these topics can make continuing the book difficult. This is an issue that many students run into when doing required reading, with most of the books required by the county including uncomfortable content.
Books most often read by high school students are older literary classics, which presents students with attitudes that may have been the norm at the time, but are not acceptable by today’s standards. Most books that students are assigned contain racism, misogyny, ableism, or some kind of bigotry. This can make students, especially the minority students being portrayed that way, uncomfortable, which makes it difficult for students to engage with the message of these books. It becomes a debate on if the book is worth the discomfort it causes.
The problem with these books is not necessarily the sensitive topics featured, but the way they are handled in the classroom. The most common complaint students have with these books is not the material in them, but the way their teachers handle it. The main concern students raise about these topics is a lack of warning or discussion in the classroom. Many find that their teachers don’t adequately address issues they find in books. Atholton junior Eva Mendoza explained that “I’ve had teachers dismiss it and say that it was the author’s point of view or just typical of the time period. They don’t take students’ point of views into account. They often become apologists for the book and try to defend it.”
This poor management from teachers makes it difficult for students to continue caring about books that make them uncomfortable. If students’ concerns about books are ignored, why should they care? They are being shown that their opinions don’t matter. This is where educators need to step up.
Mrs. Stackhouse explained how she handles books with sensitive subjects in her classroom. “A lot of it falls on building a classroom environment of trust and that it is a safe and comfortable space for students to experience things openly and authentically.”
Discussing uncomfortable topics is the key to helping students give the book a chance. And while this also gives teachers an opportunity to explain why the author might have included uncomfortable content, it is also a space for students to air their grievances and explain why a particular part of the text was upsetting. Different perspectives can also be shared during discussion, which will deepen the understanding students have of the assigned reading. This is why teachers need to discuss discomforting sections of books that they assign. Mendoza believes that teachers need to “listen to the students when they have concerns or feel uncomfortable.” When the books most commonly read by students include anything from mildly uncomfortable language to racial slurs, discussion is not only needed, but necessary.
American classics are often notorious for racism that makes every student of color in the room uncomfortable. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was written in the late 1930s, which makes it prone to having language and attitudes that are not acceptable today. The use of racial slurs and other period typical racism makes the book an uncomfortable experience for students. The novel has an undeniably important message of overcoming challenges and unity, but the unsavory elements need to be discussed in the classroom along with those themes.
Atholton teacher Mrs. Stackhouse explained that “we should always approach something older with one foot firmly planted in that time period and one foot firmly planted in 2023.” An understanding of what the culture was like when the novel was written is important, but a modern audience can also address how things have changed and grown since the time of writing. An acknowledgement of how society has evolved can go a long way in developing a student’s understanding of the text.
Teachers aren’t solely responsible for handling sensitive topics when they come up. Although the content of books can be upsetting, students should engage with the book to broaden their world views. Students also need to give the book a chance, even if there are aspects that create discomfort. “There’s something to be learned from every book, whether or not it makes us uncomfortable. The point of some books is to make us uncomfortable and to make us think. Even if the message doesn’t align with our values today, there is always the understanding of history and seeing how we have or haven’t grown,” said Atholton junior Micah Rao.
There will always be upsetting or uncomfortable things in life. Learning to manage those moments is how one grows and manages those situations in the future. Teachers should be helping students learn how to handle and cope with difficult topics and situations so they will be equipped to deal with them on their own. Being able to learn from the past and understand why a topic is problematic is a necessary skill. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it is one that is needed.