If pop culture had its way, James Franco (who starred in 2010’s Howl) would be the public face of beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Luckily, the education system still exists to fill in the blanks. Ginsberg discussions are largely reserved for undergrad English lit electives, but a Connecticut teacher, David Olio, welcomed the subject into his AP class. He was terminated for doing so.
That’s not the whole story. A student brought Ginsberg’s “Please Master” to Olio’s attention during a session about obscenity. The award-winning teacher (with 19 years under his belt) wasn’t familiar with the poem, but he read it aloud. The poem contains such language as “Please master can I touch your cheek / please master can I kneel at your feet / please master can I loosen your blue pants.” The next day, Olio was suspended without pay. The district put termination proceedings into motion, and Olio resigned three weeks later:
In February two students complained about an Allen Ginsberg poem that, at the request of a fellow student, was shared in Olio’s AP English class at South Windsor High School in Connecticut. A media uproar followed, and Olio was essentially forced to resign.
Most of the facts do not appear to be in dispute – and are more nuanced than the ‘students forced to read shocking homoerotic poem’ media narrative. The overriding question is whether a celebrated teacher with nearly two decades of experience should be forced from the classroom for a single decision – even if one views that decision as a lapse in judgment.
During a class discussion of gratuitous language, a student raised questions about the Ginsberg poem, “Please Master.” The piece was undoubtedly relevant to the discussion; it is also an exceptionally graphic account of a sexual encounter between two men.
So it is not shocking that the story quickly became fodder for local media. “South Windsor Teacher Reads Graphic Poem About Gay Sex to Classroom” read one headline, with the story saying students were “subjected” to the poem. A TV newscast warned viewers the piece was “too graphic to detail in almost any part,” and bizarrely noted that the local police were not involved in the investigation.
The facts of the story are not ambiguous. Olio read the poem aloud during the last moments of a class devoted to obsenity. The media sensationalized the tale, implying that Olio forced his students to witness darnfangled gay poetry. The Daily Beast has an in-depth analysis of the school district’s underlying politics. Those who know Olio say he’s not one to shake things up for fun: “I think he really thought the students would be able to handle it. He is an extremely earnest guy. Perhaps to a fault.”
Perhaps most persuasive is a letter, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” from a parent at the school. The parent points out how Ginsberg was the subject of a 1957 obsenity trial. The case was dismissed on freedom of speech grounds. The parent adds, “I feel sorry for the future students who will miss the opportunity to be inspired by Mr. Olio. I also feel sorry for the remaining teachers who will feel like they need to censor themselves, even at the collegiate class level.”