Teacher's View: Consider varying viewpoints in debate over books
"The best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open."
— Atticus Finch
I have nothing but the utmost respect for my fellow teachers everywhere. This debate about "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" being removed as required reading in Duluth's public schools is not about us, our teaching styles, or our concerns for our students. We are all great teachers, and we all care about our students deeply.
I also love these books. I even have a poster of Atticus, from "To Kill a Mockingbird," above my desk. And I look forward to reading them with my two daughters someday.
As with any important discussion, though, I believe it is valuable to hear varying perspectives.
These books are not being banned; rather, these books are being removed from the required curriculum because they hurt some members of our African-heritage community, as the Duluth NAACP's Stephan Witherspoon stated very clearly in the News Tribune last week.
The discussions these books allow for are important. No one is advocating that our students not learn these lessons.
But I find it extremely telling that right now those who are debating this discussion are primarily white, myself included, and writing in defense of white authors — all the while ignoring the voices of those we proclaim to be having this debate for in the first place. To disregard that now seems to be at best indifferent and at worst cruel.
I reject the idea that these two books are the only, or even the best, way to have this discussion. Why not include classic texts by Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler — not to mention new voices such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bryan Stevenson, James McBride, Angie Thomas, Yaa Gyasi, or Jacqueline Woodson?
My colleagues are right that teachers know our content area best, and I look forward to the meeting scheduled later this month where we can discuss alternatives in more depth.
I have heard some say that no students have personally complained to them about these novels. Our students live in a time where Nazis and Klansmen openly walk in our nation's streets. They go to high schools where Confederate flag-waving pickups circle the parking lots and racial slurs are written on the walls.
In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Tom Robinson was shot 17 times for a crime he did not commit. This is a work of fiction.
In real life, John Crawford III was fatally shot for holding a toy gun in the toy-gun section of a Walmart while talking to his mother on the phone. I could list more such facts.
The point is, I can see how, given the times we live in, a 15-year-old student might feel a little intimidated or maybe even apathetic toward telling a teacher a book might be offensive.
I would ask that white readers consider what would happen if the district required a book that explains why women should be treated equally and the dangers of sexism but that did so by mentioning the c-word more than 60 times. I don't think we would be surprised to find out our female population was offended. So why does the n-word — when used to that same degree — get a pass?
Atticus said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." I think this is what we need to do because my worry here in this debate is not that we are being Atticus. I worry that we might be Atticus' Maycomb, Ala.
Brian Jungman is an English teacher at Duluth Denfeld High School.