It was spring of the first year I taught high school and I was teaching the Great Gatsby. The classroom, in front of the high school, looked out over a graveyard. We had door to the outside, both a comfort and a temptation.
By the time I taught high school, the era of school shootings had started. I often thought through my plan of action in case of an active shooter situation. If we weren’t first, we would have time to barricade the doors, pull heavy furniture across both the interior and exterior doors (which I always kept locked) but we might still have a second method of egress if the shooter was inside. In that way, the door to the graveyard was a comfort.
It was a temptation because I had a daily fantasy about opening the door and releasing my fifth period class, five of whom were in anger management, to the wild. I’m sure the door triggered the same fantasy for them.
But this memory isn’t about that. It’s about the first time I taught The Great Gatsby. I had done my homework on Gatsby the summer before. I made plans as teachers do, in their fits of hopefulness. Those plans didn’t exactly include bogging down the class by reading aloud, but by the spring, I realized that we would certainly have to read portions of the book together, especially when we started it. The previous teacher had left a copy marked "teacher’s edition" in the desk. I had my own copy, but I’d left it at home, so I picked up hers and leafed through it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She had marked through all of the “bad” words with a sharpie.
The Great Gatsby, perhaps the great twentieth century novel regarding the interplay between American Materialism and the American Dream, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in which he finally finds his moral center (all my opinions – I can discuss them with you offline) and she decided she could improve the experience for the kids by excising the “bad” words. There are some truly bad players in this book. We watch Tom getting it on with a hotel maid on his honeymoon. We see people use each other, run over each other, kill each other, build lives that crush the underclass in pursuit of almost meaningless wealth.
Some of these things the kids could actually see in their own world of rural poverty, where one student’s house was burnt down over a drug deal gone bad, and one of my students slept through the winter in car with his mom and brother because his abusive stepfather beat them and kicked them out at night. The descriptive words that come to mind when I think of that man certainly aren’t safe to say out loud.
The metaphor of the marked copy hit me right between the eyes. The classroom copies were not thusly marked. So, while she was skipping those words when reading aloud, the students were reading them on the page. They saw a version of reality that she very deliberately chose not to see. She had seen it. And marked through it with a sharpie.
How much time do we spend trying to erase the appearance of evil without ever getting at the root? How many times do we shut out a truth that sounds uncomfortable to us? Will we ever focus on the disease and not the symptom? Ever since the day I found the sharpied copy of The Great Gatsby, I’ve wondered about all of those things. I’ve determined that the truth is more important than the delivery. That a whitewashed truth isn’t the truth at all.
As Uncle Morty once said, “A pious preacher might tell you a lie and the homeless man on the corner might tell you a vulgar truth.” Which is better?
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.