The recent flurry of articles and commentary about “trigger warnings” has given shape to an unease I often thought about while teaching 7th-grade English at an independent girls’ school in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Trigger warnings include methods that might be used by a media outlet, writer, or even an educator to warn a reader, student, or participant that material is about to be shared that could be potentially offensive, frightening, or damaging to one’s psyche in some way.
This is a phenomenon an English teacher can’t help but grapple with, as most of the literature we introduce to our students is chosen not just because it is considered part of an acceptable curriculum for a certain grade level, but also because it introduces students to new and challenging ways of looking at the world they live in. And in much of young adult literature, that world is not all about prancing ponies and jolly family trips to the county fair.
Not that most students today are as sheltered as they once were. Among YouTube, a zillion cable channels, Instagram, and Facebook, it is likely that my students were exposed to much more “inappropriate” media than adolescents in the olden times, when it took the cunning and stealth of James Bond to procure a single issue of Playboy from between someone’s older brother’s mattress and box spring.
Having said that, I can still imagine the naïveté and downright cluelessness that most of my students had about those times in life when “bad things” happen (sexual abuse, suicide, homelessness, hunger, bullying, racism) and it isn’t wrapped up as neatly as in their favorite half-hour TV shows. Life is messy, unpredictable, and sometimes unbearably sad. People do terrible things to one another. Welcome to English class.
The trouble with triggers
Here are four stalwarts of middle school reading lists: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, The Giver, The House on Mango Street, and Walk Two Moons. Nothing too alarming there, right? All four books are, I would argue, excellent literature for middle schoolers, or anyone.
Then picture yourself standing in front of a class of expectant students, as they open, with an air of expectation (yes, they still do that) the books you have just given them. And you realize you are about to make them fall in love with Anne Frank, knowing all along that she is going to die. That she and her family will meet unspeakable horror, and that it really happened.
Should a teacher issue a trigger warning at this point? After all, the entire lesson plan for Anne Frank could prompt nightmares in the most blasé student — Nazis hunting Jews, concentration camps, hiding in fear for one’s life. There’s no sugarcoating any of that!
Imagine the trigger warning email that would be sent home:
In English class we will soon be reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. In this unit we will be discussing Anne’s diary as a work of lasting literature. But inherently, the following topics will enter into our discussions: Nazis hunting and killing innocent people, families hiding in fear for their lives, a childhood stolen then lost.
Have a nice day!
What about The House on Mango Street, where our young protagonist shares beautifully wrought vignettes of her life, that include neighbor women and classmates who suffer abuse, people who do hurtful things to one another, and glimpses of soul-sucking poverty?
At least in The Giver, all the terrible things that happen could be couched in the monochromatic yet eerily violent dystopian “future” world our protagonist lives in — something all 7th graders are completely at ease with. (The Hunger Games, anyone?) Still, the scene where Jonas’s father “releases” a baby who is not “quite right” can unsettle and disturb — and provoke a lot of discussion. There are many potential trigger warnings that could be issued for this novel, an accepted and beloved part of middle schools all over the United States.
Even Walk Two Moons, which I love for its humor, quirky characters, and clever plot lines, has an undercurrent of the worst type of sadness: How does a young girl cope after her mother’s death?
Literature helps us cope
A teacher’s awareness that he or she is venturing into potentially troubling waters goes a long way. With careful thought and preparation, a teacher can be ready for inevitable questions, such as “Why couldn’t anyone make the Nazis stop?” or “Does Esperanza get raped?” In each of my classes there are students who have lost a parent, or known a friend who died in a terrible accident, or known someone who has committed suicide. But is it the role of an English teacher to use literature to help students figure out why life is often unpredictable and terribly sad?
The novels and poems and essays we select for our students are chosen just for that reason — they do illuminate what it is to be human. And often, in literature, as in life, we see people at their worst. But a recurring thread weaves through all of these works of literature: There are also really good people, and most of them (us) are doing the best they can do — or at least really thinking hard about how to do better. Maybe that’s the trigger we should focus on.