Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nnnnnnnnot Gonna Do It!

The Yellow Brick Road Song - Iyeoka (mp3)

Michael Chabon sure knows how to handle a story involving his children, his opinions, and the use of the dreaded, nuclear N-word.* His harrowing tale is in The Atlantic Online.

The beauty of admiring someone from afar is that, if lucky, one need not be exposed to that afar-person’s inevitable multitude of imperfections. From the proper distance, large imperfections can often seem trite and forgettable. So when I say I admire Michael Chabon, I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about beyond my admiration of his mastery of writing and clearly sharp-as-hell intellect. His wife seems funny and cool and also sharp-as-hell and, um, Jewish. And his collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs is one of the best books of its kind I’ve ever read. (Not to mention that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay was the most comic book nerd-educating fiction-based 4-million-page novel ever written.)

But I hardly know the man. All the better to try and admire him. Less reality and truth to get in the way. I can just focus on his Atlantic essay.

Our world is indeed a messy one, and in few circumstances does it become more powerfully clear to me than when one word is at the center of the story. (“I’ll take ‘6-Letter Words That Begin With “N”’ for $1,000, Alex!”)**

My immediate reaction about the censorship and N-bleaching of Huck Finn was visceral and certain. How dare they. Screw them. Mind control from the PC universe. More refusal to accept that sometimes ugly things are a part of our heritage, a part of our history. Next thing you know, they’ll start scrubbing out the murders and deaths from the Bible, along with the polygamy, incest and rapes. And they’ll take Piggy out of Lord of the Flies and replace him with a thin and muscular computer-generated Brad Pitt.

These were the kinds of holier than thou thoughts I had.

Yet in the back of my mind, I can enjoy this uncompromising vitriol knowing damn well I’ll never actually have to put my money where my mind is, because I’m not an English teacher. Having a conversation about the N-word with my children, even with Huck Finn as a jumping-off point, is a universally different challenge than being a teacher of dozens upon dozens of students, students of varying social and economic backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and so forth.

The fact that I hang out with cool English teachers, that I come from a long line of English teachers, that I majored in the damn subject... well, all of these factoids are sleights of mental hand. They ultimately mean nothing. They are weightless, because none of it translates into me sitting in a melting pot of a classroom with adolescents, millions of varying chemicals all boiling within those bodies, millions of chemical reactions both internal and external ready to ignite with any wrong step or poor choice of words.

Parenting and teaching are similar in certain aspects. Both, most of the time, are much easier than parents or teachers want to let on. Same goes for firefighters or policemen. Only on TV shows are those dudes always fighting fires and solving crimes. In reality, they’re spending most of their time sitting around and waiting for the s#*t to hit the fan. Parents and teachers are the same way.***

But then, after weeks or months of calm seas and relatively easy lesson plans, something like the N-word in Huck Finn comes up. The 4-alarm fire of English classes. That’s what they’re paid to do, right? That’s the kind of fire that stirs up a good teacher’s passions, right? Um, right?

I raise my glass to the teachers who can manage a discussion about the N-word in such a way that helps and strengthens their students rather than harming them. I wonder if the ones who think they do this well are actually the ones who pull it off. I wonder just how many of these teachers are out there in our schools. If English Teachers were marksmen and Huck Finn a sniper rifle, how many of them do we actually trust taking that shot, knowing they’ll hit the target?

“Not enough” is the only correct answer.

I can’t help but think of this guy: Hardly Working: Cool English Teacher.

P.S. The fact that this post is entirely without focus and rambling speaks precisely to how wigged out I get just attempting to write a post about an author who wrote an essay about a book written to scrub out the damn word from The Single Greatest Work of American Literature Ever.

* -- The N-word in question is not “nuclear.”


** -- I totally just wrote that so I could embed quotes inside quotes inside quotes, thus paying homage to the dream within a dream within a dream in Inception.


*** -- And all of these jobs don’t pay squat relative to their worth when the s#*t indeed does hit the fan.

1 comment:

Sara C said...

I'm just going to go ahead and call bulls*%# on you here, Billy. Every semester, I teach Faulkner's "That Evening Sun Go Down" which involves repeated use and even exploration of the meaning and application of this term. It doesn't freak me out. I don't fret over how to address it. I just do. And though I may, in fact, be one of those who think I do it well when I don't, I am confident that I do not make anyone feel small or damaged in my recognition of this word. Censoring a work of literature because it is "hard to teach" is exactly the kind of crap that should make teachers everywhere furious. If you can't handle tackling difficult subjects, you should not be a teacher of literature.

I also take issue with the idea that our only hard job occurs when the s*&@ hits the fan. You are simply wrong on this one, Billy. I'd rant a bit more, but I have to go to class - you know, my job that isn't all that hard unless someone uses the 'n' word in a story.