I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.
The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved
My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.
Substitute plans laid out in plain sight and handouts ready
that should keep my sophomores honest and hard at work,
I head off this morning to a professional workshop in a district
populated by mostly white kids and staffed by mostly white adults
to have brave conversations about race. Even while the graduation
rate for students of color in our district looks good, and we know
that we are in large part doing a credible job to close the gap,
we know our work is not yet done, that it’s only begun,
that even though my curriculum is less about dead white guys
than it’s ever been, at the freshmen and sophomore levels
including a Native American writer, two Latina writers, a Jewish
American, two Puerto Ricans and one Korean American essayist,
only two dead white women, English and American, and Shakespeare,
we are doing our level best to be inclusive, progressive, to present
a variety of voices and points of view, to offer the lens of great
literature through which to speak to students about equity, about
race, about racism, about oppression, about microagression,
about marginalization, about white guilt, white privilege, allies–
there is no escaping it. And frankly, even in the face of a student
asking me this fall, “is everything we read going to be about race,”
I would not want to go back. There’s no turning back. And I am
fine with that. It is essentially THE American issue, isn’t it?
And yet, I wonder about myself and my colleagues,
once we have checked our assumptions and checked our
multitudinous privileges, and done due diligence to create equal
opportunities for all our students no matter their race, no matter
their class, no matter their gender or gender identification, no
matter their sexual orientation, no matter their creed, how deep
must we go? Knowing we will make mistakes along the way and fail,
how perfect must we strive to be? How much more WOKE can
we get? There’s no end point. There’s no finish line. We keep at
it as long as we go on and it’s exhausting and exhilarating and
exciting and righteous–but heavy, heavy with the weight of
so much justice. As imperfect beings, riddled with our own
contradictions and weaknesses, are we up for the job?
We have to be. We see the alternative at the highest levels,
and we cannot stand for that.
Having wept myself to sleep the night before,
I got up and went to work in the school house
where we met in small teams in the library
to plan or do curriculum work or talk about
assessments, where instead I chose to color
with crayons at the table our new librarian
set up for art. It was the only thing I could do.
I colored inside the lines with several different
shades of blue and some pink here and there
while I tried to keep myself together.
Talking to anyone, to any friendly face,
I had to work hard not to break down.
I was thankful when students arrived inside
my room. They gave me a focus, a place to
channel my energies, an opportunity to make
some kind of difference. My 9th graders,
unusually subdued and cooperative, dove with
some enthusiasm into a Sherman Alexie novel,
a novel about race, culture, and class divide,
but a novel, too, about hope. Arnold Spirit Jr.
realizes it feels good to help others, and I could
feel that thought resonating inside the room.
Later, my seniors came in for a study of
A Room of One’s Own, and rather than talk and
have to face the reality of this particular irony
head on, I asked my students to make art,
to talk about what was going on in Virginia
Woolf’s head by drawing it on the page.
Students must have paused for a long time
at the passage about the cat without a tail,
the cat pausing, “as if it too questioned the
universe,” as Woolf realizes that, suddenly,
“Nothing was changed”
and yet, “the change was there”
not in substance but in sound.
What did men hum before the election?
What did women hum before the election?
And now what, after?
We carry on. We cling to hope.
We agitate and advocate for what we know is good.
We color, and we do what I found today
to be most healthful, finding comfort in
kindness from others and the kind attention
I could give, a hug I received from my son,
and solace in the words on the page.