Arts & Culture Blog
Steinbeck Center Exhibit on Book Bannings Enlisted a Local Reading Champion
August 8, 2012
Jerry Smith, who retired in 2006 after 35 years teaching at, primarily, North Salinas High School and Alisal High School, participated in a panel discussion last Friday at the National Steinbeck Center regarding book bannings, the subject of the center’s new art exhibit Banned and Recovered: Artists Intervention. Before his talk, he spoke with the Weekly about other impediments to learning he encountered in his career, which he wrote about in his new book Not About the Students.
Smith says the book is an account of his three decades of teaching, with the names fictionalized ("though not very much," he says) and situations based on real events that people familiar with will recognize.
"Unfortunately a lot of times it isn't [about the students]," he said. "I have a chapter talking about a true situation: the resistance to using John Steinbeck's books in his own hometown. We eventually won that battle. But the only reason we did was Dick Hayman, a teacher at Salinas High and a Steinbeck scholar, went to the administration and said 'Somebody like [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Herb Caen would have a field day about it—Steinbeck's own books not being used in his own hometown. After that, the resistance went away. This was in 1977. I remember it pretty vividly. It was my second year in the district. At the time, the only time we [used] Steinbeck was The Red Pony, for middle school, and The Pearl."
The two Steinbeck classics that were resisted most from entering the curriculum were Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, Smith says, mostly based on "a little bit of profanity," but in particular, in a convoluted twist of political correctness, that the mentally disabled Lenny in Of Mice and Men is killed at the end.
"[The opposition's] take was that it seemed Steinbeck was approving the execution of people who are mentally retarded," Smith says.
"[Also], in general, [that] the students at Alisal basically didn't need college prep, they were be just fine putting nuts on bolts."
Smith says he had help in fighting the resistance to using Steinbeck's most acclaimed books from allies like Ernie Walden from Seaside, who said, "The powers that be in this community don't want their workers dealing with the issues that John Steinbeck brings up. These people are anti-union."
"I was a member of the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers [union] my whole career," Smith says.
Another book at the time that was raising the discomfort level in the reading public over issues of race, racism, poverty, crime and identity was, says Smith, the 1977 memoir Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. Smith contends that the resistance to allowing the Steinbeck books into the curriculum of his high school was in reaction the grittier literature that was coming out at the time. But Smith says there is another, "not as obvious" impediment to teaching kids Steinbeck and other serious novels, including libraries increasing the presence of computers and technology, as well as what's happened in classrooms.
"The trend now in California schools, really across the nation, is more and more emphasis in standardized testing, which leaves teachers less time to teach novels," Smith says. "You have to practice for the test, with emphasis on memorization, not reflective thinking. Electives are severely cut back—drama, music, art programs. The American Federation of Teachers meeting in Detroit came out with a statement against means testing. Teachers have a lot of great books on the shelf but they don't have time to get to them. I had Huckleberry Finn on my shelf."
He also had Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which proved to be telling and ironic.
"When I turned in my [textbooks] on the last day in 2006, they said 'Don't worry about these, Jerry, they're going to burn these anyway.'"
Teachers, as a profession, spend a disproportionate amount of their income in their classrooms, and an inordinate amount of time fighting political battles that sap time and energy from teaching. Jerry Smith and his allies, back in the late '70s, were lucky enough to see the rewards of fighting against censorship and book banning.
"There's thousands of kids, because the ban was not successful, who were given a chance to be exposed to Steinbeck. [Books like] Of Mice and Men…any kid can relate to and read pretty easily, but the ideas in them are profound. The reading level is very approachable, even for kids who don't have that much of an academic background. I think that's how Steinbeck intended. His audience was the common man. I think he was very much about empowering the common man as much as possible."
He says the problem isn't just political, but systemic.
"I think another part of this whole problem is the way that things are structured," Smith continues. "You have administrations that really are concerned about sweeping issues under the rug. They don't want to look bad in the eyes of the superintendent. You get these very rosy pictures of all the wonderful things going on in school at meetings, and that's fine, but you'll hardly see any administrations bringing up any problems."
During the last weeks of his last year, Smith says he had eight drawers that documented the various battles he fought as a teacher in Salinas.
"I came close to throwing all of it out," he says. "I hung on to it, and each folder I kept wound up being a chapter in the book. My wife wasn't too thrilled to see me dragging that home."
But those involved in local education might be.
Not About the Kids can be obtained by emailing email@example.com.