Her sidekick Jazmin piped up in agreement. (Jazmin's book seemed tame by comparison until I realized that what seemed like desert hills on the cover were actually curves.)
Considering it was only the second day of school, I felt I better set the tone right away.
"Girls," I said firmly but gently, "these are not books for school reading. Please take them home today."
"Son," said Jazmin, with a look of sympathy for her clueless teacher, "we're allowed to read any book we want. Just ask the principal. She says so."
I followed Jazmin's advice and inquired with the principal. As a new teacher in a new job, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had chosen this New York City public middle school precisely because it was rumored to be progressive. Maybe I hadn't understood how progressive.
As soon as I'd met my new principal, I was excited to work with her. Sarah's unconventional philosophies, candor, and year-round sandal-shoes made her in no way like any previous boss I'd ever had. In my interview, she admitted that three different teachers had quit the position in the six months before. Surprisingly, that didn't put me off. It made me excited. I could do this! I was up to the challenge!
As soon as she heard my question and saw my confused expression, Sarah laughed and invited me in to her office.
"Ephi," she said patiently, "the important thing is that they're reading and getting a little better at it every day. We believe that when students choose the books that interest them, then they are motivated to read. Over time, they will gravitate to more challenging material."
Then, she winked. "And who are we to judge what is or is not ‘good' literature?"
I looked at her with an expression that could rival Jazmin's. "We're not talking about what's good or just okay. These books are essentially soft porn."
"Essentially?" Sarah laughed aloud, sitting cross-legged in her swivel chair. "Oh, they're definitely soft porn. The moms read them, the aunts read them, the older sisters, and then our kids. It won't work to outlaw them for independent reading.
"And at the end of the day, as long as they're practicing the skills of reading-visualization, focus, making connections-there's a chance they'll become stronger readers, get tired of reading this garbage, and opt for something else."
I listened, but I was not convinced. So I argued. By letting them read these books in class, aren't we setting the bar too low? Aren't we sending the wrong message? And what about all the amazing young adult literature that is out there? Where is the Christopher Paul Curtis, the S.E. Hinton, the Harry Potter?
Sarah nodded in agreement. "All those books are right here in our library-it's your job to build a bridge between the books they're already reading, and what they could be reading."
All my arguments were moot in the end. No matter how many times I asked them to put the books away during class time, Victoria, Jazmin, and many of their peers kept turning pages, fully absorbed.
I tried to remember what Sarah had said. For at least 30 minutes a day, the entire class sat quietly in their seats, using their active imagination, reading independently as instructed-and this was no small victory.
Still, all fall, their reading choices drove me crazy. I desperately wanted them to love the books I thought they should love.
But then winter came. And I decided to try something new. I tried giving up. I read the books they were reading myself. I talked to my circle of "hot stuff" readers about the characters, the plots, the language. I stopped lecturing and started listening. And as a result, my students started taking occasional book recommendations from me.
It was only after letting go of my own rigid, ego-based ideas that I began to understand what my principal was getting at. And it opened up a host of possibilities. Perhaps those books were not going to rot their young minds. Perhaps, choice is more important than judgement. It's a thin line between resignation and a brave new world. And if Jazmin and Victoria are walking it daily, I, their teacher was going to join them.
Ephraim Stempler is a writer and former middle school and high school teacher. He lives in New York City.