This was an opportunity that teachers crave for every year. They are teaching an Advanced Placement class focused on the world of poetry, and a student brings in a poem that catches their eye, hoping to discuss how the given poet uses language in his work.
David Olio is this teacher. He is a 19-year veteran of the South Windsor School District in central Connecticut, and winner of the State’s highest award for teaching excellence, but hadn’t read the poem in question, so he walked through it with students.
The poem the student had brought was “Please Master” written in 1968 by Allen Ginsberg. This poem contains a graphic account of a homosexual encounter that begins with “Please master can I touch your cheek / please master can I kneel at your feet / please master can I loosen your blue pants.”
Obviously this poem is not exactly appropriate, but then again the students were 17-and 18-year-olds, some of whom were taking this course in conjunction with the University of Connecticut and receiving college credit. I believe they could handle the content of this poem by Allen Ginsberg, one of the most renowned poets of the last century.
Read literally, this poem by Allen Ginsberg can be seen as a description of a sexual encounter with a lover, most likely Neal Cassidy, an occasional bisexual lover of Ginsberg’s and the hero of Jack Kerouac’s 1959 classic On the Road. But read figuratively, Ginsberg’s poem can be interpreted as a metaphor for a society that represses those who engage in the acts described by Ginsberg.
One day after reading Allen Ginsberg’s racy poem, Olio was placed on indefinite and unpaid leave by the district. Three days later, the district began termination proceedings with Olio. Three weeks after that, he chose to resign.
By reading the poem in class, the district felt that the teacher showed “egregiously poor professional judgment,” Olio’s termination letter stated. “By so doing, you violated the trust placed by the Board of Education in you as a teacher, you brought discredit upon the South Windsor Public Schools, you undermined public confidence and parent trust in you as a teacher, and you put the emotional health of some students at risk.”
A teacher in Texas was fired on a similar basis for talking about Christianity, but was later reinstated.
The abrupt dismissal of an adored educator for reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg has left the town of South Windsor, which has a population of approximately 25,000 residents, in disarray. Town citizens, alumni, and Olio’s current students who heard him recite the Allen Ginsberg poem have crammed into hearings to testify on his behalf.
Helen Vendler, one of the nation’s most distinguished literary critics, sent a letter to the school board on Olio’s behalf.
“To add Ginsberg’s poem to school-censored works of Twain, Faulkner, Whitman, etc., is to deny freedom to read what one likes.” Vendler stated “Given what students are already exposed to via TV and film, Ginsberg’s poem, which concerns a well-known form of abjection (whether heterosexual or homosexual) reveals nothing new.”
After all, if the Ginsberg poem were to be narrated by a woman, it could be mistaken for Fifty Shades of Grey or a routine scene from Game of Thrones.
Olio’s former colleagues believe it will be difficult for Olio to retain his position or find any job teaching for that matter. There may be an ounce of upside however, says Courtney King, a former student of Olio
“In defense of this whole imbroglio,” King said, “at least it got people in this town reading Ginsberg.”
[Image Source: Elsa Dorfman]