I’ve been reading and researching a number of memoirs recently. The stories of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and those forced from their homes as a result of the civil war in the Sudan haunt me. I’ve reread stories of young men who survived unthinkable atrocity under South Africa’s apartheid and stories of girls living under strict Shira law in the Middle East. How poignant and important these stories are, the stories of youth surviving the harshest conditions and clinging to their hope for a better world. Of course such memoirs would be of the utmost significance in a world literatures course like the one I teach, the stories of young people the same age as my students persevering, reflecting on their experiences, and making a difference in their world. But I’m caught in a balancing act.
In some respects, educating teenagers is perhaps the most difficult age group to teach. In middle school, parents and teachers need to shield adolescents from some of life’s most grotesque realities. As college students, no content matter is taboo. High school is a time of balance for teachers, students, and parents alike. It is a time when students are initiated into the world of adulthood, truths revealed and fantasies shattered. Students are initiated into the realities of our modern world in the hopes that they will learn from the mistakes of the generations before them. But how much is too much?
I’ve just finished Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. It is the heart-wrenching journey of a young man who loses his family and at twelve years old is forced into fighting Sierra Leon’s bloody civil war. Drugged and brainwashed by unthinkable acts of violence, Beah’s story is important for all readers, but for especially high school students. Such a memoir would help students begin to question the nature of violence in our modern world, contemplate the effects war has on children, question how such violence toward and against children is sustained and in some cases funded by the western world, and reflect on the privileges that they have as a result of growing up in the suburbs of the United States. It is from memoirs like Beah’s that students learn to take an interest in their world and hopefully take action to make it a more peaceful, more just world. But is it too much, too early?
Stories like Ishmael Beah’s are violent. How could they not be? Beah’s story would not be as poignant, as real without his vivid descriptions of how he was kept in a drugged stupor in order to perpetrate horrendous acts of violence against his own countrymen. To leave such reflections and descriptions out of the book would lessen the importance of Beah’s journey. His is a story begging the world to wake up to the realities faced by child soldiers throughout the world today. Without such descriptions, his story would not have the impact that it does. But is this too much for a 15 or 16-year-old to grapple with and understand? Some would argue that Beah was forced into this violence at 12, so of course American high school students should not be shielded from such a memoir. In fact a story about the atrocities of violence would be one that is especially important to an increasingly more violent youth culture in our own country. Others might argue that such a story is too violent, too profane for the high school classroom. Where do we draw the line?
I’m not sure if I will add Beah’s story to my list of recommended books this fall. In an ideal classroom, I would. In fact, the story was recommended to my by one of my former students, so I know I have students that would be moved by Beah’s words. But in a society where the threat of litigation is ever present, especially for teachers, I am stuck between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear.
But in case you’re into some good non-western memoirs, might I suggest: