The works of Junot Díaz – the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who so astutely documents the Dominican-American experience – have earned a spot on high school and college reading lists across the country. As a matter of fact, Lisa del Rosso’s freshmen at New York University – where she worked as a writing professor for eight years before taking a leave of absence to take care of her mother in Venice, Florida – read Junot. She took a role as a substitute teacher at Venice High, where on her first day, she saw that the 12th-graders from an Advance English class felt detached from the material they were studying. They’d quickly do their work, and then glue their eyes to their phones. So she decided to shake things up and assigned Diaz’s “Alma,” a short story from This Is How You Lose Her published on The New Yorker.
The piece, which uses strong language and graphically describes sex, served as a discussion about controversy. “The lesson was really about controversy,” del Rosso said, according to the Herald Tribune. “I asked the class, ‘Do you find this piece controversial? Why Why do you think The New Yorker picked this piece to publish? Do you find anything in it offensive? Do you think the author did this for shock value or is it authentic to the piece?” Her students became engrossed in the material.
On her second day at Venice High, del Rosso learned that she could no longer work at the school or any other in the Sarasota County School district. Right off the bat, Venice High Vice Principal Rosemary Schmidt received a complaint from a parent, and she and Assistant Principal Melanie Ritter asked del Rosso to stop teaching “Alma.” Del Rosso complied, though she disagreed. “I didn’t think I was breaking any laws,” she added. “I was never told I couldn’t hand out controversial material. I didn’t get a warning, it was just: ‘We’re banning you. You’re done.'”
A Boston middle school teacher can attest to the value of assigning Junot. Though Ryan Tahmasebhe was aware of the restrictions in choosing reading material for his students – which is why he went with “The Money” – Junot’s work spoke to his 7th-graders. “I taught ‘The Money’ to my 7th grade students along with two other short pieces by other authors,” Tahmasebhe wrote on Education Week. “Díaz’s story was unquestionably their favorite. It made them laugh and it made them think. It also gave my students, most of whom are white and from wealthy families, a window into the world of a young Dominican immigrant whose background and relationship with money is incredibly removed from anything they’ve experienced or are likely to experience. That’s important to me because I firmly believe that if there’s one thing we should hope to teach our students, it’s empathy.”
The day the school banned del Rosso, the students merely watched The Lord of the Flies. The school’s principal argues that she did have due process, but that her introducing “Alma” “demonstrated a lack of good judgment.” Del Rosso counters that the students will enter college in just a few months. “I think you’re doing the students a disservice if you’re assuming they are not mature enough to handle that material,” she said.
As the district faces a substitute shortage, Del Rosso made an impact with her students in just two days. Del Rosso has 10 days to appeal the school’s decision, but she has chosen not to challenge them.