Unbearable Darkness or Inexcusable Blindness? An Open Letter to Steve Salerno

I’ve been wanting to jump into social publishing for a while now, but was held back by my own Goldilocks complex. I wanted my first foray to be “just right”. Well, “just right” be damned. It was “just wrong” that made me take the leap with the following open letter to Steve Salerno, a journalist and journalism instructor at UNLV, about his commentary, “The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature”:

Dear Mr. Salerno,

As an English teacher, my initial intrigue over “The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature” quickly turned to near-disgust when I realized that your commentary was an exposé of your archaic understanding of what young adult literature truly is and what it reflects about today’s youth.

You just can’t seem to fathom how texts such as Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, and Chris Crutcher’s Loser’s Bracket could possibly help youth face difficulties. You even go so far as to ask us educators and our allies if it’s possible to “look out across the vastness of contemporary life and see something other than darkness and depravity.”

Here’s the thing: too often, the darkness and depravity that you flippantly reference are the realities of our children. Mr. Salerno, meet some of my children:

This is David*. David had been coming to school each day with a positive attitude…until one day, he didn’t. David let me know that he was nervous because in just a few short days, his father, after serving time on drug charges, would be released from jail. As if this wasn’t enough, his mother,in a drunken rage, threw out all of the food in the house and his breadwinner grandmother (on her fixed income) didn’t have enough money to buy new food.

This is Moises*. Moises walked into my room with a heavy heart from day one, as his father had been deported the previous summer. Upon finding a note Moises had written, it was clear to me that he believed a life without his father wasn’t worth living. This was a child who was so distraught over his circumstances that he had developed a plan to end his own life.

This is Aaliyah*. On the day of a field trip, Aaliyah let me know that she would not be able to attend. When I asked why, she told me that her mom wouldn’t sign the permission slip. This seemed odd and as we talked more, Aaliyah shared that she had to flee her home with her mother the previous night to escape her abusive father. She showed me the welts and bruises that had been inflicted upon her.

These are just a few of the amazing, strong young people that I have the great fortune of teaching each and every day. Favorable or not, these children didn’t choose the situations they are living in and I don’t get to choose who walks in my door and what baggage they bring with them. My job at its most basic level is to provide a free and appropriate public education to all of my students, not just the ones who are privileged enough to be shielded from the “darkness and depravity”. My job at its most important level is to provide a safe and supportive environment where students feel comfortable to share their thoughts, questions, experiences, and feelings.

A short while ago, my class read excerpts of the poem, “Sticks and Stones” by Jon Jorgenson. My students had an intensely visceral reaction to this poem that was shocking, even to me. Nick* wrote about his reaction,

This is so much like me, but his outlet was hiding. I thought I had to hide, too. I came out of my shell and I didn’t care what they said anymore. I found my outlet and played basketball and that’s helped me a lot.

Jorgenson’s words in “Sticks and Stones” are gritty. They’re hard. They’re dark. The anger and hurt are almost palpable. But they’re real. Nick wasn’t fazed by the darkness of the poem. In fact, he was comforted in knowing that his reality wasn’t his alone. Without ever having met Jon Jorgenson, he connected with him and his experiences.

Literature provides a risk-free space for students to reach out and make those connections that they so desperately hunger and thirst for — regardless of their socioeconomic status, background, or self-image. Literature doesn’t judge them. It walks along side them.

Let me be clear: The books that my students and I choose do not immerse them in an “unsavory worldview”. I do my best to provide my students with a reflection of their own unbearable darkness in the hope that through these books, they may realize that they are not alone. And if, by chance, another student who has been fortunate enough to avoid such negative experiences learns to have empathy for a peer, then I have successfully done my job.

With all due respect Mr. Salerno, it seems that the issue here is not the unbearable darkness of young adult literature. The issue is your inexcusable blindness to the difficulties that our children face.


A Pissed-Off Teacher

*Names have been changed.