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Does homoerotic Beat poem ‘Please Master’ belong in AP English class? Teacher forced to resign over it.

Allen Ginsberg reading a magazine in the infamous Peace Eye Bookstore. (Ed Sanders Collection)

An award-winning AP English teacher who read a homoerotic poem by the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in class was forced to resign after complaints about the sexually explicit nature of the work and about the way the teacher handled the episode.

David Olio, of South Windsor High School in the South Windsor school district in Connecticut, was suspended from teaching in March. He has now agreed to resign to end the controversy that began after a student suggested he read “Please Master” in class in February during a session in which students were asked to share poems — over the objections of some other students, according to the Journal Inquirer newspaper.

Olio, who has been teaching at the school since 1996, recently reached agreement with the school district and the local teachers union to resign after the 2015-16 school year, but will remain on administrative leave until then, according to a district statement:

“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 Courant newspaper, Superintendent Kate Carter wrote Olio a letter in March that said in part that some students had reported “being emotionally upset after hearing the poem” and that “Please Master,” which was not part of the class curriculum, should never have been read in class:

“The content of the poem is wholly inappropriate for a high school classroom, and it was irresponsible for you to present this poem to children under your charge. 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.”

“Please Master” was published in 1968. It begins like this, and gets much more graphic:

Please master can I touch your cheek
Please master can I kneel at your feet
Please master can I loosen your blue pants…

According to local media reports, Olio did not give students a chance to “opt out” of class while the poem was being read and discussed. Despite this, a CNN story on the subject says that some people in the South Windsor community are conflicted about what happened to Olio. For example, it quotes a resident who wrote on a public blog (and claimed to have a daughter in the class where the poem was read):

“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…. 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.”

It also quoted Cary Nelson, a respected English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as saying:

“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.”

The Advanced Placement program, owned by the College Board offers more than 30 courses in various subject areas that are intended to be designed to be as comprehensive and rigorous as a college course. The College Board Web site says: “Each course is developed by a committee composed of college faculty and AP teachers, and covers the breadth of information, skills, and assignments found in the corresponding college course.” And high school students who score high enough on AP exams can get credit from many colleges and universities.

The work of Ginsberg, an important Beat Generation poet, is taught in many college courses around the country. Should it be off-limits in an AP high school English class that is designed to be a college course but in which there are minor students? If so, should schools stop pretending that at least some AP courses are actually equivalent to college courses?

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