Award-Winning Teacher Fired for Reading an Allen Ginsberg Poem
Published May 28, 2016 in
It was the kind of moment teachers covet. An Advanced Placement English class focusing on poetry, and a student brings in a poem that caught his eye, hoping to discuss in the waning moments of the period how the poet uses language in his work.
The teacher, David Olio, a 19-year veteran of the South Windsor School District and winner of Connecticut’s highest award for teaching excellence, didn’t know the poem in question, but he took a look and walked the students through it in the remaining time.
The poem the student discovered and brought in was “Please Master,” an extremely graphic account of a homosexual encounter published by Allen Ginsberg in 1968 that begins: “Please master can I touch your cheek / please master can I kneel at your feet / please master can I loosen your blue pants.”
Clearly, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” this wasn’t. But the students were 17- and 18-year-olds, some of whom were taking the AP course in conjunction with the University of Connecticut and receiving college credit.
One day after the class, Olio was placed on indefinite, unpaid leave by the district. Seventy-two hours later, the district began termination proceedings against him. Three weeks after that, he agreed to resign.
Reading the poem in class, the district found, 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.”
The unceremonious dismissal of a beloved teacher has thrown the town of South Windsor, population 25,000, halfway between Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, into tumult. The local newspaper denounced him in editorials. Alumni, town residents, and Olio’s current students crammed into Board of Education hearings to testify on his behalf.
One alumna said she was embarrassed to say she was a graduate of the high school. Olio’s church minister testified that “every time David talks about teaching you can see his face brighten, his hands start to move, and the energy emerge…This is my preacher talk now, but I believe this is what God has created David Olio to be and to do.” The student who brought in the poem testified how Olio inspired him to become an English educator. Parents lamented that a single, tragic mistake could end an otherwise sterling career.
But was it a mistake? That has been the line of many of the parents, students, and teachers who have rushed to defend Olio—that he made a single error in judgment, one he should not be forced to pay for for the rest of his life. To many, Olio’s case points to a changing culture around education, one in which teachers are on a hair trigger vulnerable to losing their livelihoods because of declining union protections and the rise of high-stakes testing. According to some members of the school community, the controversy began when one student in the class begged off a test in a different class the next day, claiming he (or she) couldn’t concentrate because of the reading of the poem. The story quickly blew up on social media in the town before the local press picked up on it and disciplinary proceedings began.
“I also feel sorry for the remaining teachers who will undoubtedly feel like they need to censor themselves, even at the collegiate class level, in light of the one strike and you’re out policy we appear to have adopted,” wrote one parent of a student in the AP English class in a public blog post.
But to call Olio’s reading of the poem a mistake—a poem a student brought to class and asked to be read—is to say the reading of a work by one of the towering figures of 20th-century American poetry is out of bounds. “Please Master” was written in 1968, just before the Democratic convention in Chicago would erupt in riots. Ginsberg had already been put on trial for obscenity in 1957 for his poem “Howl,” which with its casual depiction of gay sex and drug use, and lines like “The asshole is holy,” was considered far outside the bounds of what was considered good taste. A judge, however, ruled that the poem had “redeeming social importance” and was unlikely to “deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire.”
In the series of poems written around the time of “Please Master,” Ginsberg was trying to explore every aspect of the human experience—intellectual, egotistical, spiritual, and sexual, no matter how messy or unpleasant. Like Walt Whitman, he was attempting to catalogue every aspect of the self, “even those we normally hide from ourselves in order to feel better and flatter ourselves and to make ourselves feel like important people,” said Steve Silberman, a San Francisco-based writer who was a student, teaching assistant, and friend of Ginsberg’s for 25 years.
“Allen thought that by bringing material into poetry that were previously considered unpoetic, he enlarged the poetic occupation,” Silberman said.
Read literally, the poem is about Ginsberg, presumably, describing his sexual abjection before a lover, in this case usually considered to be Neal Cassidy, a bisexual sometime lover of Ginsberg’s and the hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But there are other readings. Silberman puts the piece in the long tradition of religious poetry that crosses all faiths and which involves a submission to a figure who represents the divine. It can be read, too, as a metaphor for a society that represses and marginalizes those who engage in the kind of acts described.
Helen Vendler, one of the nation’s pre-eminent 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, and share what one likes with others, which is the basis of intellectual life,” she wrote. “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.”
And many who have followed the story inside and outside central Connecticut have wondered whether those same forces were at play here. If the poem were narrated by a woman, after all, it could be mistaken for Fifty Shades of Grey or a scene from Game of Thrones.
“I am certain that most of these students are watching things on their home computers that are more violent, more truly horrifying than this poem, but this poem describes a sex act between two men,” Silberman said. “With the widespread acceptance of gay marriage, people’s ‘ickiness’ with the acceptance of gay people is finding new places to come out of hiding. They can express their revulsion at gayness and homosexuality in way they couldn’t before.”
South Windsor is reliably liberal turf in an increasingly blue state. The town regularly votes Democratic in presidential and gubernatorial elections and sends Democrats to Congress and to the state House. But some have noticed a creeping if quiet social conservatism entering the area. Two years ago, there was an effort to remove Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami from the district’s reading list, citing its overtly sexual content.
“It’s this confusing mix of spoken progressive ideals but often a quiet conservatism underneath,” said Courtney King, a planning and zoning commission member in the town and a former student of Olio’s. “There has been a definite tonal change since I grew up here. It makes me think of Mrs. Flanders from The Simpsons: ‘Will no one think of the children??’ I mean, if there are parents in town who think their teenagers don’t know what a blow job is, they are sorely mistaken.”
Because of his termination agreement with the district, Olio refused to be interviewed for this story. But people who know him say it is unlikely he was attempting to push an accepted boundary or tweak the administration.
“I think he really thought the students would be able to handle it,” said one friend. “He is an extremely earnest guy. Perhaps to a fault.”
Gary Weinberg and Cathy Ryan are documentary filmmakers who travel around the country documenting master teachers in action for the Teaching Channel, in order to instruct other educators on best practices. They spentmost of a week in Olio’s class last year, and according to Ryan, “He is one of the most impressive teachers I have ever witnessed.”
Asked to comment, the school board sent along a statement that said the district, Olio, and the local teachers union had “mutually agreed…to resolve the recent dispute that has divided the community” by Olio agreeing to resign.
“Mr. Olio and the other parties have reached this agreement because they do not want to further distract parents, students or staff from their important work of teaching and learning,” the school board added. “During his tenure at South Windsor High School, Mr. Olio has made many positive contributions to the school district.”
Olio’s former colleagues say it will be difficult for him to find a job teaching again. There may be some upside, however, according to King, the former student.
“In defense of this whole imbroglio,” she said, “at least it got people in this town reading Ginsberg.”