In seventh grade, I asked my mom to ban a book.
My thumb marked the passage I wouldn’t read out loud. It was her own tattered 1960s edition of Brave New World , and I shoved it under her nose like incriminating evidence.
“Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One.”
My mom put on her glasses. Unnecessary, as the red glare of my face gave off plenty of reading light.
“Boys at one with girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”
“We’re supposed to read this . . . in school,” I told her.
When we’d heard that Brave New World was assigned that year, I’d immediately gone digging in the basement—my personal used bookstore, where all the classics were dusty and free. I’d scored a tombstone-sized Complete Works of Shakespeare and a vintage Les Misérables with a frayed maroon cover and gaudy illustrations. My mom said there’d be a Huxley paperback in her college archives, and I was not the type to wait. I read the whole thing.
I thought Brave New World was super fucked up. Sure, there’s fascinating stuff for a bright young reader: the conflict of freedom v. happiness, the social and scientific ethics of a genetically engineered caste system (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon). There is also vivid description of a racist porno, naked kids trained in “erotic play,” state-mandated casual sex, and frequent reminders of how sexworthy and “pneumatic” the main female character is. She has literally no other personality feature. Maybe there are twelve-year-olds who are ripe for a good psychosexual dystopian satire. But being twelve is its own psychosexual dystopian satire, and I was not in on the joke.
I did not want to talk about erotic play with my middle school classmates.
Here’s what I meant to tell my mom: “Fellow book-lover, I understand this is a provocative novel, and that I am, in fact, in the Advanced Language Arts Group—a great responsibility for a seventh-grader. I appreciate the opportunity to read challenging works! (We all remember the Jimmy Spoon and the Pony Express debacle.) However, you may have noticed that my peers have recently entered puberty, the unending bloodsport of preempting one’s own humiliation by humiliating others. The teachers have made it clear that ‘boys will be boys,’ so I don’t necessarily trust them to cultivate a learning environment that serves these complex vocabularies. Do you see my concern?”
Here’s what I said: “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh I just. Hm. I don’t really wanna—all this stuff—you know how the boys are, and . . . I don’t. I just don’t know.”
For the first time in the history of middle school, my mom completely understood.
At the start of the term, my mom and I sat down with the Cool New English Teacher. She had short red hair and a snarky sense of humor and I wanted to impress her so, so badly. The adults had a polite conversation about Aldous Huxley while I swiveled in my wheely-chair as if this were all my mom’s idea.
I wish we weren’t meeting like this, Cool Teacher. You think I’m like all the others, the ones who wrote ten-page stories when the assignment was ‘write a ten-page story.’ But I wrote one hundred pages about two friends named Katerina and Calypso, and Calypso gets her throat shredded by a wolf. There’s a picture! Please don’t make me talk about orgies.
“So maybe a choice that’s less titillating,” Cool Teacher said. “Like 1984 ?”
I did not know the word “titillating.” I made furious eye contact with the table.
My mother and I don’t fit the profile of stereotypical book banners. We’re not religious conservatives, and my mom dismisses charges of helicopter parenting. “What about all those times I forgot to pick you up from rehearsal or school? Just, left you waiting there, for hours?” (Good save, mom.)
But we fit another profile. In the debate framed as “safe space v. free speech,” we’re the poster-perfect censors. The Snowflake and the Coddler, a morality play in which I am the young person who finds a book so discomfiting she pressures an instructor to remove it from the course; my mother, the complicit parent who shields me from the offending material.
It worked. We read officially-less-titillating 1984 that year instead.
On the playground, wild speculation ensued. Huddled round the four-square court (our playground was 80 percent parking lot), seventh-grade sleuths investigated the narc’s identity. I kept quiet. Until:
CLASSMATE: What about your parents, Abbey?
ME: [beneficent shrug]
MY FRIEND ELLEN, PROBABLY: Nah, that doesn’t make sense, she already read the book.
(Good save, Ellen!)
CLASSMATE: So, how was it? Why’d it get banned?
ME: Uh. Well. You know. It’s . . .
How to show these Gammas I am a mature woman of letters without getting into rhymes-with-porgy territory?
ME: I would say it’s pretty titillating.
DICKHEAD: TITillating? I’m sorry, did you say it’s TITillating?
(Not a good save, Abbey.)
We read 1984 . (Orwell actually ranks higher on the most-banned list, so you’re welcome , classmates.) Cool Teacher led us in lively discussions about authority, propaganda, and surveillance; I’m confident no one in Advanced Language Arts Group that year ever succumbed to MAGA-brand necromancy. The only other middle schooler to read Brave New World was my archrival/crush—the beating heart of any crushvalry is reading books other kids haven’t—and we ranked all our classmates by perceived intelligence level. (Guess who were the Alphas?) So that’s another fun element Brave New World can bring to a place of learning. Ellen told us we were being assholes, but like, we made you an Alpha-minus, Ellen? Pretty ungrateful.
And so Brave New World faded from the four-square court.
Then, on the last day of school, Cool Teacher pulled out a box of free books. It was stocked with glossy untouched editions of the Forbidden Novel . She gave everyone in class a copy, with a rousing speech: Defy the authorities, the censors, the parents, the prudes! Freedom—which we all really “got” now, thanks to Orwell—swelled in our hearts.
Oh wait. She means me. I am the prude. I am Big Brother.
Shame clamped down, hard as an underwire. Why had I subjected my classmates to my neurotic sex panic? 1984 had been a kickass unit, and half that book is Winston and Julia sorting out the logistics of totalitarian boning. We collectively survived the substitute teacher who failed to fast-forward through the movie’s full-frontal scenes. “WHY DOES THE GIRL HAVE PIT HAIR BUT NOT THE GUY?”—Great Seventh-Grade Outcry. Maybe I’d overreacted to Huxley. Maybe I should have pushed through my discomfort to engage in next-level Discourse. What was my deal?
Looking back, it can be hard to see where overwrought adolescence masks real vulnerability, or if such distinctions only exist from the remove of adulthood. I try to remember what it was like to be that girl, the context of her choice. I remember middle school. I remember that over the course of one academic year my body morphed from an A-cup to Double-Ds. I remember certain issues arose at school that I now know to call “sexual harassment,” and which I understood then as “ahhhhhhhhhhh what [Tina Belcher noise].” I remember a meeting at school to discuss those issues. I remember the school director gently telling me that boys just acted that way at their age, and sometimes we (the girls) provoked them without meaning to: “Like when you laugh, or giggle.” I remember laughing nervously when reading Brave New World.
I remember how fiercely books mattered to me.
In Cool Teacher’s class, it was socially acceptable to bubble over with literary opinions. The brightest part of my day was slinging rejoinders at archrival/crush in our epic Les Misérables v. War and Peace battle. I could trace my friendship with Ellen directly to Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Books made my mother and me allies when hormones were most determined to pit us against each other. In the realm of stories and ideas, the acne and ill-fitting bra were invisible. Through books, the best parts of me could breathe and be seen.
No dickhead boy was going to fuck that up for me.
Is the sense that love gives you ownership over things ever more powerful than at twelve? Books were real and they were mine. When books are so central to your personal relationships, your relationships with books become more urgent. My favorite activity was getting the house to myself so I could bust out The Complete Works and recite A Midsummer Night’s Dream as loud as I wanted. One day I strayed into The Taming of the Shrew and proceeded to sob all over the Bible-thin pages, because it hadn’t occurred to me that my close personal friend William Shakespeare might be sexist. Around the same time, I formally severed ties with Anne of Green Gables because she came out against votes for women.
It’s not that books were my “safe space.” Books were constantly injuring and betraying and then saving me again: I had no defenses at all.
Over boys and bodies and their attendant horrors, there was only one weapon in my arsenal, and it was the one adults had given me: I could prevent laughter and provocation. I could stop harassment before it started. Boys couldn’t help it, but I could.
The “safe space v. free speech” frame leaves out all the non-academic ways our culture celebrates censorship. Don’t provoke, don’t talk back, don’t “make drama.” Adults teach young people—especially those who are female, queer, trans, of color—to self-censor for our own safety: Change your clothes. Ignore it. Kids pick up strategies to forestall unpleasantness and manage situations. We demand that they do so, because, after all, boys will be boys . And whites will be whites, cops will be cops, straight people don’t want to see that, get off the internet then, what did you expect?
The message I received as a middle schooler was that whoever has a leg up the privilege ladder won’t ever adjust, so you’ve gotta work around it. Banning Huxley was my workaround.
I recently asked my mom if she remembered my stint as a seventh-grade book censor. “I think it had something to do with sex?” she recalls. “You didn’t want to talk about it with your classmates.”
“But did you have a sense of why I didn’t want to talk about it?” I asked.
“Yeah, because you were in middle school .”
She defends her choice. We’re not ones to half-ass opinions, Mom and I. But now I lack her certainty.
She never once told me a book was inappropriate, never curbed my literary curiosity. I don’t know if the other kids in my class had that same freedom. As an adult, I realize that instead of “Maybe pick a different book?” our question should have been “What are you going to do to facilitate a respectful discussion about sex in a classroom of seventh graders?”
I wonder if my teacher could have answered.
And I wonder about an education not just in the ideals of free speech, but in the skills and practices of freedom. If kids learned to defend their rights, earn respect, question authority, survive criticism. If the anti-censorship brigades swooped in not just when syllabi are challenged, but when a girl is told that the appropriate reaction to mistreatment is silence. If we stopped conflating social vulnerability with intellectual cowardice, and the frame that pits safe space against free speech dissolved. If every kid’s basement were stuffed with books, and nothing was off-limits.
When seventh grade ended, I peaced out of middle school. I skidded past eighth grade into the brave new world of an all-girls high school, where I got an excellent education in the skills and practices of ignoring boys. My book-banning days were done.
About a decade later, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine teaching my own classrooms of middle schoolers, I picked up Brave New World again. It was . . . funny? There’s some twisted shit in Huxley’s dystopia, I realized, but it’s light. A satire. The irony that had whooshed over my deathly earnest head in seventh grade now hit right between the eyes. How could I have found this nonsense threatening? What weird power had I projected onto it, onto my classmates? Poor Cool Teacher. She’d assigned a quaint, scandalous-for-the-1930s comedy, and I’d dug my pubescent demons out of the basement.
I thought about my students, reading Dostoyevsky in their seventh-form literature courses. How Ira rolled her eyes and declared The Idiot “a silly book.” Of course, when I was her age, I’d gone after the Russians, thinking them colossal and grave, operating by the inexorable logic of the student: A novel is always better for being unassigned.
They are tricky things to assign. A book is a different book depending on the season, the reader, the temperature of the train car, the flavor of your tea. The book I was holding wouldn’t be as funny now if it hadn’t been so morbid when it caught me years ago.
It was the same edition our teacher had given us: Harper Perennial, cover image of marching black-and-white automatons, faceless and frightful. It was the same book, but not the same. And the things that were scary to me then—a twelve-year-old boy, the word “orgy,” an actual orgy, the sound of my own laughter—now weren’t. They must have changed into different things. I’d need to create new words for them.
I put the book back on the shelf and walked to class.