From Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , on her time working as a member of a corporate housekeeping team:
So here I am on my knees, working my way around the room like some fanatical penitent crawling through the stations of the cross, when I realize Mrs. W is staring at me … would she at least be inspired to offer me a glass of water? Because I have decided that if water is actually offered, I’m taking it, rules or no rules … Not to worry, though. She’s just watching to make sure I don’t leave out some tray square inch, and when I rise painfully to my feet again, blinking through the sweat, she says, “Could you just scrub the floor in the entryway while you’re at it?”
If those words aren’t enough to inspire some high-school student to stick with it and find a way through to college and a better job, Ehrenreich’s descriptions of her difficulties finding even this kind of work, of condescending bosses, of Walmart employees unable to afford even a stained shirt off its “clearance” racks just might do it. That’s one of the many reasons why the book is taught in schools across the country. But not in Bedford, N.H. Not any more.
Following the complaint of one family, the school district’s curriculum committee voted to remove the book , citing Ehrenreich’s descriptions of Christianity (at one point she refers to Jesus as a “wine guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist”) and her profanity (which my recent skim through the book-I read it in 2001-didn’t reveal, suggesting that it’s less pervasive than, say, the recently censored word nigger in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn ). It will be replaced with unspecified “articles from CNN Money, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and the Christian Science Monitor .”
Those articles may be the most powerful journalism produced since All the President’s Men, but the general de-juicing of the reading material in our school curriculums suggest that they’re probably not. The best literature is strongly marked by passion, and, to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, the first thing passion does is to offend somebody. The result is a bloodless canon of available-only-in-schools readings, like the story of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery my own son was working with last night for his “literature response” homework. Smithsonian Magazine calls it a “thrilling tale of deception and intrigue.” The version in Sam’s “Open Court Reader” was a boring litany of facts so bereft of emotion that, to provide the required quote in support of his paragraph on the question “What were the consequences of William and Ellen’s escape,” Sam was reduced to this: “If they were discovered, they would surely be returned to slavery, and they knew they would rather die.” It was the only line in the story that even suggested that William and Ellen were risking anything more than a return journey on the same train.
I’m sure Sam’s teachers did a better job with the material, and I hope that Bedford’s high-school teachers, deprived of a powerful text, will find other, un-censorable ways to convey the underside of capitalism and the truth about life on a less-than-living wage to both the future Wall Streeters and the future waitstaff in their personal-finance classes. But why are we so ready to replace words that move us with words that put us to sleep?
We can take the word nigger out of Mark Twain, but we can’t take what it represents out of our history. We can suck the terror and passion out of the force that drove William and Ellen to risk their lives and their love for a dream of freedom, but we can’t change what really would have awaited them “if discovered.” And we can take Nickeled and Dimed out of the schools, but we can’t take it out of the future of the kids who, one way or another, end up mopping the floors of the classrooms instead of reading books in them.