Incorporating stimulating literature is essential to any high school English class, as it enables students to look through varied perspectives. However, in December 2016, substitute teacher and New York University (NYU) professor, Lisa del Rosso, was banned from teaching in the Sarasota County school district for doing so.
Caring for her sick mother in Venice, the NYU professor was on a leave of absence working part-time as a substitute teacher for Sarasota County schools. Del Rosso assigned “Alma,” a short-story featured in The New Yorker, to a class at Venice High School. Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of the story, has been a long-time voice for young, marginalized Dominican-Americans who are struggling with issues such as racial prejudice and romantic relationships. Unsurprisingly, within just a few hours, the school received a parent complaint. Even though del Rosso willingly gave up the lesson, she was quickly fired, due to an absurd 2011 school policy that bans substitutes after a single performance complaint.
Race, profanity, sex and negativity are all featured in Diaz’s short story, but guess what? It isn’t tasteless, contemptible garbage. In fact, its prose is sophisticated and unique with an astonishingly sharp, stream of consciousness style. The point of view is second-person, as if you were the main character, making the story more like a conversation. “The lesson was really about controversy,” del Rosso explained to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I asked the class, ‘Do you find this piece controversial? Why do you think The New Yorker picked this piece to publish? Do you find anything in it offensive? Do you think the author did this for shock value or is it authentic to the piece?'”
It seems that del Rosso’s only crime was actually stimulating thought and discussion in the classroom. It is also worth noting that without any contention, del Rosso had assigned “Alma” to her NYU freshmen, who were just one year older than the senior class she subbed for winter of 2016.
“Alma” is just as deliberately down to earth, as it is provocative. Diaz has no pretensions on what it’s like to be young and Dominican, and his prose is never light-reading. If administrators attempted to omit any work deemed morally dubious, there would hardly be any literature left worth reading. At some point in time, all great stories shock people, and administrators must become aware that this is not inherently bad. An influential teacher challenges students to think deeply and ask questions, which is exactly what del Rosso exemplified.
Del Rosso’s attempt to spark an honest dialogue among students regarding complex topics was quickly shattered. An open-minded academic environment should be encouraged, not hindered. These days it is even more imperative to work these types of stories into our classrooms—critical thinking and empathy are some of the most important skills of our society. Allowing students the opportunity to look beyond themselves can foster an ability to connect with other’s experiences. In my opinion, Venice High should have applauded del Rosso for taking the initiative to inspire students, and she certainly should not have been fired due to a single complaint.
In the response to district action, Vice Principle of Venice High School, Eric Johnson was supportive, telling Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “She disregarded the lesson plans, which was in itself inappropriate, and the fact that she presented questionable and highly inappropriate material demonstrated a lack of good judgment.” Del Rosso’s response was balanced, explaining that although “Alma” was not part of the syllabus, she considered it “supplementary material,” something she chose to incorporate in order to add impact to the lesson plan. Perhaps to leave out school administrators in this choice was unwise, but the county response was overblown, establishing a dangerous precedent in how far a teacher should dare to go in bringing debatable literature into the classroom. After this controversy, why would anyone want to take that risk at all?
Clearly, choosing to ignore complex issues is futile, especially in the classroom. No students will benefit just because del Rosso cannot teach in Sarasota anymore; it’s really just a vanity that makes the school district come across as anti-intellectual and overly moral, which is really the last thing it needs. And even though it is no surprise when a school district chooses to avoid any scrutiny at all costs, in this case, these administrators were also simply too hasty. In the future, the district should be more considerate, not flinching at the first sign of controversy. Why should a seasoned, NYU professor be so easily banned from teaching in Sarasota?
And a word of advice to the nervous parents and administrators who wanted Del Rosso gone: even though you may not like something, please do not spoil it for everyone else.