If You Really Want to Change the World, Read a Book by Morgan Jackson
I can’t know everything about everyone, everywhere. No one can. I’ll never forget reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time with a group of high school juniors. I had a class of 21 students with just 4 girls and 11 of the 17 boys played varsity football. We set the curriculum before we got class rosters so I planned out what I wanted to do with this novel over the summer. I looked over my roster and wondered aloud, to myself, and colleagues how this was going to work in such a testosterone filled classroom. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.
Day 1 we got caught on the idea of intraracial. All of my students were aware of the concept of interracial, but didn’t know what to make of the colorism that is described between Maya and Bailey. So as would become our custom with this novel I put on my history teacher hat, which I didn’t know I had, and we talked about colorism in America. We talked about house slaves and field slaves, and the paper bag test. My students brought up actors, actresses, singers, athletes, and anecdotal stories about skin tone and social norms. I borrowed a scientist hat and tried my best to explain genetics and the concept of passing. I showed them images of people who appear white, but were not and twins who each appeared different races. That conversation got so spirited my principal who happen to be in the hallway stopped by to see what they were talking about. They left that day and I was tired, but the good tired, a satisfied tired.
As time went on my history teacher alter ego explained sharecropping: what it was and how it worked. One young White student (a minority in this class) asked me “Isn’t that kind of just like slavery, but with a different name?” “That doesn’t seem fair” he remarked. I could see the wheels turning in his head, but also in the head of every other student. They were bothered by the fact that the white kids who lived on Mama’s land were treated better than her in society and disrespected her in her own store. They were incredulous that a sheriff would warn Mama about “the boys” riding out at night so she could hide her son, but not actually do anything to stop the impending and predictable violence they would cause.
I explained segregation and integration when Mama tried to take Maya to a white dentist, whom she had previously lent money to only to be turned away because he would rather stick his hand “in the mouth of a dog” than a colored person. I introduced the class to the Little Rock 9 and then questioned why the brown kids didn’t already know this part of their history.
We talked about culture. The importance of church in the black community. I showed them YouTube clips. We talked about food and its integral place in black fellowship. They worked with a partner, did mini research projects on an aspect from the book, and then presented it to the class.
We read the hard parts. I warned them that some uncomfortable things were coming and when Mr. Freeman touched Maya for the first time, this group of teenagers (mostly boys, mostly minorities) so quickly dismissed by society as being nonchalant and apathetic, was visibly angry. They questioned humanity and how anyone could do that. When I told them it got worse I had students ask if they could skip past that part because they couldn’t stomach it. 16 year old boys were too weak to read such a violation. They took it personally. They connected. They cared and they showed sympathy.
By the time we finished the book we had covered a lot of ground both inside and outside of the book, but more importantly, my students were thinking. They were thinking about the world they live in. They were questioning how we got to where we are today and wondering about where we might be in the future. They were realizing the power and possibilities inside of themselves. They saw themselves in a character who couldn’t have been more different from them. Some saw themselves in her violation, others in her isolation. Some students connected with her resiliency, or her abandonment. Regardless of how they connected or why we all finished that novel profoundly different than who we were when we started it.
I had changed too. I realized that while I did a hell of a job teaching this novel. I had started from a place of preconceived notions and expectations. I was surprised the white kids understood and the double standard and society’s mistreatment of the black community at large. I was bothered by the black students lack of what I considered necessary black history. Then I realized I didn’t know them anymore than they knew Maya, and yet they didn’t prejudge her or make request of who they thought she should be, or know, or behave. I became a better teacher watching them interact with this text. I became a better person learning to let go of my expectations of my students, of the world, and of myself.
That’s the power of a book. It opens us up to a world, a time period, a character, an issue that we may not have seen before and we can never go back to who were before our eyes were opened. Changing the world doesn’t require that we do anything more than open a book and change ourselves.
Morgan Jackson is a high school English teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. She believes that teachers should push their students out of their comfort zones, but also be willing to leave their own. You can connect with her on Twitter @MorganJaxon702.