David Olio, a high school English teacher, has resigned after sharing poem with class
Allen Ginsberg's "Please Master" offers a graphic account of a homosexual experience
English professor: "If you can't handle Ginsberg how are you going to teach Walt Whitman?"
Nearly a half-century after publication, an Allen Ginsberg poem about a homosexual encounter has divided a small Connecticut town and led to the resignation of an award-winning English teacher.
In “Please Master,” published in 1968, the iconic Beat Generation poet and writer gives a graphic account of a homosexual experience. It begins:
Please master can I touch your cheek
Please master can I kneel at your feet
Please master can I loosen your blue pants
The language gets far more explicit from there.
David Olio, a high school Advanced Placement English teacher, has resigned in the wake of controversy over the poem he shared in class with his students, according to local school district officials.
Olio’s resignation is effective at the end of the 2015-16 school year in order “to resolve the recent dispute that has divided the community,” according to a statement from the South Windsor Public Schools.
He will be on paid administrative leave until then, the statement said.
“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,” according to the statement.
Debating the handling of ‘bigger issues’
Some in the community now wonder whether the decision doesn’t set a bad precedent for education and freedom of expression in the Connecticut town of 25,000.
“This is a teacher who encourages students to push the envelope by allowing them to explore difficult themes so I’m certain that was his intent by allowing this particular reading,” wrote one resident, who in a public blog post claimed to have a daughter in the 12th-grade AP class where the poem was read.
“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.”
Cary Nelson, an internationally acclaimed English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specializing in modern American poetry and an outspoken advocate of academic freedom, also questioned the dismissal.
“If you can’t handle Ginsberg how are you going to teach Walt Whitman?” Nelson asked. “Either education is a place where you can talk about bigger issues and challenge students or it isn’t, and certainly students on their way to college – in an advanced college prep class – need to know that sometimes, sure, things can be uncomfortable. That’s what education is about.”
In a letter dated March 20 notifying Olio that his termination was under consideration, South Windsor Public Schools Superintendent Kate Carter said the content of the poem was inappropriate for a high school classroom.
“It was irresponsible for you to present this poem to children under your charge,” she wrote. “Some of your students are minors, and you gave neither the students nor their parents any choice whether they wished to be subjected to the sexual and violent content of this poem. Moreover, some students reported being emotionally upset by having to hear this poem.”
Some South Windsor residents voiced similar objections.
“I don’t understand how that actually got into a high school class,” one parent told CNN affiliate WTNH. “My son is not in that class. If he was, I think I would be mortified. It was extremely inappropriate.”
Another resident told CNN affiliate WFSB: “I couldn’t read the whole poem it was so inappropriate. The first few lines, but after I got into a few lines, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.” The residents asked to remain anonymous.
Improper decision or a teachable moment?
Olio read the poem during class at South Windsor High School on February 25, after he asked students whether they wanted to share any poems. One student presented a copy of “Please Master.”
The letter said Olio reviewed the poem twice and, despite objections from some students, decided to share the poem with the class.
“After the fact, you have demonstrated that you still do not fully understand the highly inappropriate nature of your decision and its impact,” the school system’s letter said.
But Nelson said it would have been “dreadful, humiliating and disrespectful” for Olio to deny students an opportunity to discuss the poem.
“So why are some people so upset?” he asked. “I think maybe it is not just because the graphic descriptions in the poem – and they are graphic – but because if you really listen to the poem you’ll see yourself in half the lines. … Some people don’t want to hear themselves in a gay poem. They want to think homosexuality and heterosexuality are worlds apart.”
Nelson said “Please Master” is an “image of devotion that applies to all human beings, a description of desire to have contact with another and such devotion as to be mastered by another. That’s part of human sexuality – human experience. I’m sorry, it just is… For students about to go to college it is a great poem to be confronted by.”
Olio has taught at South Windsor High School since 1996, according to his personal website. He served in various leadership roles, including the redesign of the sophomore curriculum, implementation of an online creative writing course and school diversity programs. He won the 2009 Excellence in Teaching Award from the Connecticut Education Association.
“During his tenure at South Windsor High School, Mr. Olio has made many positive contributions to the school district,” the school system statement said.
Olio has not responded to requests for comment.
In the “About Me” section of his website, Olio writes, “I enjoy working, and I have a great respect for education – for engaging one’s brain with the world.”