This is story about books and covers, and more directly, not judging the former by the latter. It’s also a story about the failure of our education system to properly equip its graduates with a rudimentary grasp of world literature. But hey, that failure sometimes leads to some decent, dare I say divine, comedy.
My daughter used to cheer for one of the premier clubs in the United States. For those of you not in the know, the cheer industry has boomed in to a money making juggernaut of a sport where you’re only as good as your latest round-off, back handspring, back layout, back tuck. To execute these spectacular moves and lifts takes hours and hours of practice week in and week out. This work happens at cheer gyms across the country. The kids practice, practice, and practice while the parents wait, wait, and wait.
My daughter’s gym mercifully has two waiting areas. The main waiting area overlooks the gym floor and is full of mostly moms, crowded up to the observation glass gasping, applauding, and bragging. This is a dimly lit, high chatter area and the gym owners recognize that sometimes, non-cheer brothers and sisters need to find a spot to do homework while cheer siblings do their thing. So they have a second waiting area: the smaller, brighter, quiet room. This particular night, I wanted to catch up on some reading so I found a nice spot in the quiet room away from the buzz of the main waiting area.
Alas, quiet was not to be found this particular evening. Two moms took up seats across from me and launched in to a very “non-quiet room” conversation. I thought, “do I subtly remind them that this is the quiet room and that they should please kindly shut the f*ck up, or do I just let the conversation play out in hopes that enough evil exasperated glances might send them the appropriate hint?” I opted for the latter approach and was entertained for my trouble.
The two started off casually enough, talking mostly about their high-school aged girls and how each was progressing in cheer. When that vein began to grow languid, they moved the conversation to comparisons of each daughter’s school experiences. From this, I was able to pick up that one of the moms was a high school teacher. At this point their conversation got very interesting. The teacher mom was confiding in her new friend that she had found herself confounded if not downright alarmed, by her daughter’s recent high school literature reading assignment.
Teacher mom said that her daughter was assigned a book that under initial inspection, was very likely satanic. “Satanic?” What started as unavoidable and annoyed eavesdropping on my part, turned quickly to heightened anticipation. I thought, “had a brave high school literature teacher assigned Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ perhaps? Or maybe this was one of those One Million Moms types; the kind who believed in her heart of hearts that reading ‘Harry Potter’ was tantamount to devil worship.”
The other mother was legitimately aghast at the very thought of the poor child being forced to read satanic literature.
Teacher mom continued, now with the gravest of tones. She described how her daughter had, almost casually, shared with her how the book went in to very precise detail on the construction of hell. It described in very colorful language, the punishments for certain types of sins. It mapped different sins to different layers of hell; each with its own flavor of eternal torment. It even described the nature of the devil himself!
Mom two was apoplectic. I quote her here not to cast dispersions on her educational level, but to leave you with a hint that she may have been in over her head. “You can’t be teaching no devil worship in school!” By now, I was a very active spectator of their conversation; as each had begun to look at me, expecting if not my verbal approval of their outrage, then certainly some serious eyebrow raising and complicit head nodding. I didn’t disappoint. But while my facial expressions surely conveyed disbelief, it was not the book that had me mortified.
Teacher mom had now grown almost forlorn at her impotence to stop the assignment. It seemed every student had been assigned the book and to teacher mom’s dismay, no other parent had raised the alarm; did no one else care? Was there to be no pitchfork attack of the school? The God-fearing parents among them would be left to exorcise their angelic children from any schoolwork-induced demons at some point after the grade was settled.
At this point in the conversation I was barely able to conceal my shock-cum-laughter, and quite frankly, could no longer tolerate the ignorance of literature so painfully on display in the quiet room. I now butted in with a superhero sound track playing in my mind (maybe Mighty Mouse). Here I come to save the day!
Composure now. No laughing…ahem.
“Do you happen to know the author?” I managed to inquire with an actor’s stoic concern.
They both looked at me hopefully, I’m sure thinking, “ah-ha, he’s now engaged. We finally have rallied another concerned parent. Perhaps now we can build the momentum behind our noble, soul-saving, cause. Pitchforks at the ready! Let us rid the public school system of this evil volume!”
Teacher mom said, “I think the name begins with a ‘D’.”
I questioned gently, knowing the answer already, “Hmmm, does ‘Dante’ sound familiar?”
Light bulb. “Yes! That’s it!” She exclaimed, obviously excited that I was already aware of this satanic text.
Slowly, methodically, I began to unwind their outrage.
“Ok, well, your daughter is reading what we would call ‘a classic’ of world literature.”
I paused to let that sink in just a moment and then continued, “Dante’s Inferno is one of three parts of his 14th century epic poem called Divine Comedy.”
I now picked up some steam. “In Inferno, Dante describes his vision of hell based roughly on his knowledge and interpretation of Christian theology at the time. It was a theology common in Dante’s Italy, but beyond the beauty and imagery of the poem itself, Dante’s work is an allegory of the soul’s journey to God. It’s a masterpiece and is considered a cornerstone of Western literature. I should also add that I too read it in high school, and then again in college, and if you didn’t have the good fortune to have been assigned it in school, now would be a great time for both you to read it as well.”
They looked at me like I was speaking Italian.
I clarified. “It’s OK. The book is old, famous, and definitely not satanic.”
They gave me a somewhat patronizing, “oh…ok then,” and changed the subject.
I’m happy to report that the last time I checked the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, Dante’s Inferno was not on the list.