Tag Archives: huck finn

An Apology to My Students

I didn’t post yesterday for the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge © because I needed to sit with something and think about it. Then I needed to decide what to do. Actually, I knew what to do, but I also knew it would be difficult, and I needed to figure out how to say what I needed to say.

I have taught books by White writers that include the n-word in their books in the past, specifically To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which I mistakenly believed were antiracist. However, what both books have in common is that the Black characters serve as plot devices for White characters to learn about racism and injustice. Both of these books were in the curriculum I taught. I wasn’t made to teach either book and had the power to remove both of them and chose not to. I really regret those choices. I could have been teaching actual antiracist texts.

Another choice I regret is how I handled the language in both books. Some time back, my argument wouldn’t have been too much different from the argument cited here by Cait Hutsell, although, to be fair to my former self, I would have justified it by its inclusion in the text rather than some idea that I was “ban[ning] words from human discourse”:

Cait is right, of course. It was Cait’s tweet that prompted me to sit and think about my actions. Cait’s tweet was retweeted by several other people I follow who added their thoughts to the tweet, and they helped me figure out what I needed to do. Mary Worrell’s tweet in response to a thread by shea martin on failed allyship of another kind helped me figure out what I needed to do.

So, I am here to acknowledge publicly that I believe my actions in how I taught these novels were harmful. I explained to students that the word would appear in the novel. In my early years, I justified reading the word aloud because it was in the text. Later on, I confronted the word head-on at the beginning of our text study. We read the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen and Gloria Naylor’s essay “The Meaning of a Word.” We also watched news clips about Huckleberry Finn‘s place in the curriculum. While this frontloading centered the voices of Black writers and their experience with the word, my next step was in the wrong direction. I asked the students how they wanted to handle the word when we read passages aloud. It’s wrong to put that on students, and it’s something I recognized because, in more recent years, I have simply said we are not going to say the word—I don’t care if it’s in the text.

I wish I could say I reached this understanding many years ago, but I didn’t, and my ignorance caused harm. Even if it’s true that I have not used that word outside of reading it in a text, I shouldn’t have even done that. I apologize to my former students. I’m sorry that my Black students experienced the racial trauma of hearing the word. I’m sorry that my White students took away from my lessons that using that word as long as it was in a text was okay.

I want to thank all the Twitter educators for making me reflect seriously on this harmful practice. You have my promise that I have changed my approach to texts entirely—actually to the point that I will no longer teach White writers who use that word in their writing (we can have arguments about realism all you want; you know why they used it).

I would urge my fellow White teachers to contemplate their practice on reading this word aloud, too. If you’re doing it, stop.

***

As a side note, on Thursday, this blog turned 15 years old, and I let the day pass by without remarking on it. Thanks to those of you who choose to read and engage.

Overheard

 

listen photo
Photo by ky_olsen

I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.

A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”

I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.

I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.

I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.

So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?

Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.

Related posts:

Slice of Life #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.