'Mockingbird' Revisited

Fall 2020

By Quincey Grieve

Eight years ago, I wrote an essay for Independent Teacher describing what seemed like an innovative approach to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.1 Harper Lee’s novel is set in Alabama in the 1930s, and her characters use the “N-word” a lot—almost 50 times. So, if you had read passages from the book aloud in class, as teachers and students have done for decades, it was pretty much inevitable that the word would come up. Most teachers probably did what I did: kept reading and hoping that the awful moment would pass before anyone got too uncomfortable.

My colleagues and I thought we could do better.

So, as my essay chronicled, we decided to tackle the “N-word” head on. We devoted class time to it before we got to the part of the book where the word first appears; we taught the painful history of the word; we asked students to journal about how it felt to hear the word in class. And we discussed openly our reasons for teaching a text that contains it: As we told our students, we believed that it was important to grapple explicitly with the horrors of racism as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird in order to understand the past and create a more just future.

Our work was considered bold and empowering—so much so that we presented it to our entire K-12 faculty in collaboration with our director of diversity and so much so that Independent Teacher published my essay about it.

That all seems like a long, long time ago.

I’m at a different school now. And over the last two years, we’ve removed To Kill a Mockingbird from the required curriculum.

What changed? Listening, really listening, to our students.

Students in our Black Affinity Group shared with the group’s trusted Black adult leaders the pain, anger, and frustration they felt when reading texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird. In one particularly stark conversation, a colleague shared with me the rage students felt sitting in English class; they simply didn’t want to have to go to school and hear that word, not from their white peers and certainly not from their white teachers.

This conversation led to extensive English department conversations, which led to teachers engaging in professional development and reading and deep institutional introspection. Ultimately, we removed from our curriculum both To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, two texts that had been hallmarks of our program.

To Kill a Mockingbird remained an optional read for a mini-course that involved taking students to see Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical adaptation of the book on Broadway. The production rejects much of what is so painful about the book: the lack of voice and agency of the Black characters. In Sorkin’s production, Calpurnia speaks, and Tom Robinson is a man, not a caricature of someone waiting for a white man to save him.

Most of the students who took the mini-course—both Black and white—seemed awed and enthralled by the show, engaging deeply in the compare/contrast between the book and the production, and they seemed to fully appreciate the beauty of the perspectives presented in the show.

But the “N-word” was still all over the place. And, as I walked the steep stairs to exit the Shubert Theatre in the spring of 2019, I heard a Black student mutter to himself, “Damn, that’s a lot of N-word.”

I repressed these words and focused on the awed and enthralled.

The global uprising and call for racial justice ignited by the killing of George Floyd has pushed me to hear this young man’s voice in a new way. And it has pushed me to revisit my 2012 essay and hear another young man’s voice in a new way.

I concluded my essay noting that 63 out of 64 students—students with diverse racial backgrounds—said they appreciated our all-in approach when we polled them after our To Kill a Mockingbird unit ended. The one exception was a Black student who wrote, “It just gets kind of tiring to hear your teacher say the word ‘n’ over and over again.”

I realize now that the journal entry of the 65th student and the muttering on the stairs of the Shubert Theatre were metaphorical black@school Instagram posts of 2012 and 2019. They were student voices calling for change. But like so many others telling their stories today, they were not heard.

In many ways we were bold: addressing the pain of the “N-word” head on, removing “sacred” texts from the curriculum. But looking back through the lens of today’s call for racial justice, I realize that the classroom approach we thought was so bold and empowering almost a decade ago actually perpetuated the pain that so many Black Americans continue to feel today. Looking back, I realize that “culture” with “a lot of N-word” can eat at the soul of a student.

I write this essay to say what I should have said then: I hear you. And the world of education must hear you in a new way.

But merely taking the texts out of the curriculum wasn’t enough. Merely making a text optional wasn’t enough. While literature is a means by which we can better know and understand the horrors of our past in order never to repeat them, I no longer believe that it is either necessary or appropriate to read the “N-word” aloud as part of that process. I no longer believe that “classic” texts that present Black people as voiceless and agency-less belong in our curriculum.

The work we have done in our Middle School has been effective and can serve as a model for the deep-dive curriculum reviews schools need to do. I often get the question, “So do we just not read the classics anymore?” The answer is emphatically no, we do read the classics. We read Romeo and Juliet and Lord of the Flies. We also read The Outsiders, Twelve Angry Men, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry—classics with deeply painful storylines of racial and class injustice but with outcomes, agency, and voice for characters that present hope, power, and anti-racist action. We’ve debated removing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry from the curriculum because it too includes the N-word” many times. But while we do not read the “N-word” aloud, we have kept the text because it is both told from the Black perspective and written by a Black woman.

We also read texts that aren’t—yet— “classics” but that are told from non-white perspective and that tell a story of racial injustice today. For example, we read I am Malala, the story of a Muslim girl shot by the Taliban for her advocacy for her right to an education and human rights. We read Long Way Down, the story of a Black 15-year-old child tortured by the decision to avenge a gang murder of his brother with murder, as expected by neighborhood norms, or to listen to the voices of his past who greet him, as he travels a long way down—in an elevator and as a human.

The curriculum choices are critical. Equally important is the way we talk about the texts in class, striving to include transparent conversation about who has a seat at the table—as authors and as characters—and who doesn’t.

I’m cautious about celebrating the work we have done. I’m confident we’ve made progress. I’m not confident that we have it “right.” If that were the standard, we’d surely fail. The best way I know to assess our progress is to engage in conversation with our students and our families about the work we’ve done together. How can we do that? Through surveys and journal assignments, in class discussions, by listening—and truly hearing—as we walk the stairs. One of the biggest initiatives we’ve started is advisory program discussions that are intentionally tied to the curriculum, offering a forum for deeper exploration and personal connection. As students look at the jury deliberations in Twelve Angry Men, for example, advisory conversations could intentionally connect for timely conversation around current events and racial justice issues in our modern criminal justice system.

Allyship—it is a vague and undefined term. Almost 10 years ago, I wrote to share how we’d tried to be allies by addressing the racism and pain in the “the classics” head on. Today I write to embrace a new vision of allyship where the curricular exploration is deeper and broader and where, most importantly, every person on our campuses hears the one student out of 65 and the one student on the field trip walking the stairs of the Shubert Theatre—students who are metaphorically crying out, “No/Stop/This isn’t right!”

Notes

1 Quincey Grieve, “A White Woman Addressing Racial Complexity in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Independent Teacher, Spring 2012.
Quincey Grieve

Quincey Grieve (qgrieve@sssas.org) is the director of Middle School at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, VA.