September 1, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower
As a writer, I’ve never been a fan of censorship. As an English teacher, I wasn’t a fan of it either. I’ve said just about everything in the classroom, including “shit”, “fuck”, “nigger”, and more. Hell, I once told a student to “scissor me” (disclaimer: I was asking her to hand me the scissors and had no knowledge of the sexual connotation of such a phrase).
Naturally, most of my outbursts of profanity occurred when I was reading from great works of literature. I wasn’t the type to walk into the classroom and tell the kids to “sit your asses in your fucking seats.”
My fiction has never been overly filled with profanity either. Nor was I ever big on sharing my writer identity with my students or coworkers. Inevitably though, the private life of a teacher will come out. Whether you are a writer or a former porn star, your students will eventually come to know more about you than you ever wanted them to know.
It happened to me one day in the writing lab when my honors students were doing research. As I prowled the room attempting to catch students off task, I spotted a student reading a story on his computer. Never one to deter students from literature, I leaned in closer to see what he was reading. When the student realized I was hovering over him, he had that “caught-red-handed” look on his face.
“Mr. Tower, this story is inappropriate,” he said before I even realized what he was reading. Then I spotted the title and author: “A Dick Move” by Nathaniel Tower. The first line of the story was “Yesterday I was fired for fucking my boss’s secretary.”
Now, as I mentioned before, I am not an overly profane writer. Compared to Bret Easton Ellis, I’m pretty G-rated. Of course, this student had to find the most vulgar story I had written.
“Please get back to work,” I told the student.
The next day, that class was abuzz about their author-teacher. I did my best to calm them down: Yes, I write fiction. No, I’m not famous. No, we don’t need to talk about it. No, we aren’t going to read my stories in the classroom.
Soon, it was back to work. Maybe I hadn’t written anything offensive
enough, or maybe their attention spans didn’t require a deeper exploration of my authorship, but the topic rarely came up again. Still, I realized it was time to be more careful. After all, I had heard of teachers being fired for their behavior outside of the classroom. Could my budding writing career land me in similar trouble?
I decided to take some action to prevent this from happening. First, I removed the most profane stories from the publication list on my website. Sure, the students could still find the stories if they wanted, but I would at least make things more difficult for them. Next, I contacted a few editors asking them to change m
y byline on the stories they had published (in particular, I was concerned about several stories I had published about my experiences in the classroom). Fortunately, the editors were happy to do so–and several even replied that I was not the first teacher to make such a request.
My paranoia didn’t last long. Within a year, I was writing stories more vulgar than the one that student had stumbled upon in the writing lab. I knew the odds of getting in trouble were small, and I was going to write what I wanted to write.
Over the years, some students and even some parents found out I was a writer, but none pressed the issue too much. They had other things to worry about. Really, I was just lucky that the wrong student or parent never became interested in my extracurricular pursuits. If so, I may have ended up like this guy whose science fiction novel about a school shooting may have cost him his job. It’s probably worth mentioning that my novella Hallways and Handguns features a school shooting and a lecherous teacher. What would my school district have said if an angry parent had uncovered this book? Would I have suddenly been accused of being a mass murderer and a sexual deviant?
When I moved to Minneapolis and stopped being a teacher, I became much more open about my writing. Many of my former students and coworkers found out about it, mostly thanks to social media. Of course, that was all after the fact. It wouldn’t matter at all if a parent took it to the school board now.
So what’s a school teacher to do? Can we write what we want and be open about it? Personally, I wouldn’t recommend promoting your work in the classroom–especially if what you write is in anyway controversial. Nor would I recommend that you censor yourself as a writer. Ultimately, you need to know the proper time and place for each pursuit, and you need to be ready to accept the consequences that might pop up in this insane world of ours.