Below you will find my response to Kay’s post on prejudice: Mark Twain’s “N-Word”. You might what to visit Kay’s blog to read the post and comments so you will have context for my “speech”.
I have taught with the original text (Tom Sawyer) in my 5th grade classroom — ten year olds — in a racially diverse community. I told them BEFORE we opened the book and started reading that it had language that would be very hard for us to understand.
I explained that some of the words just weren’t used any more, but there were a few words in the book that would shock them and make them angry. We needed to talk about how we are going to handle that before we started reading.
The book was not used in conjunction with the reading program, it was used in our equal rights and equalities studies. We talked about how people get smarter and grow and evolve. I asked the kids to describe things they were afraid of as babies that they are no longer afraid of now.
As we read the book we discussed it, scene by scene. We discussed our emotions in reaction to what we read, but we also discussed the character’s emotions in reaction to what they heard.
We talked about the fact that Jim and Tom were friends and Jim wasn’t offended by the use of the N word and in fact used it to describe himself. Then we talked about naming in general. Such as: Why is it okay for one person to call you “honey” but not another? Why can you say, “I am an idiot” but get ticked off when someone else says it? Even 10 year olds were bright enough to figure out the difference in intent — why the word was used.
My personal opinion is that if one wants kids to learn one should teach them; not hide everything disreputable from them until they are 18 years old and then hope that — without instruction or guidance — they make optimal choices.
And while I would never introduce sexually explicit material into the classroom, I wouldn’t fail to address it if a child brought it into the classroom (and believe me, in the upper grades they do). In fact every school I worked in had a specific policy of gathering and talking to — educating — everyone involved in the incident, including the parents of the children.
Ignoring hatred, prejudice and exploitation will not eradicate them. Exposing them for the shameful, petty, and degrading things they are have reduced prejudice and its resulting violence, and I have seen the changes in school campuses that prove this.