Student Notes, part 2

My junior classes are finishing Huckleberry Finn soon, and last week one student showed me something she found in the copy of the book that I’d checked out to her.

There were a series of notes sprinkled throughout–little motivational conversations left by a former student, intended to cheer up whatever random readers might come across it in the future.

It took me a bit, but I now remember the girl who put those notes in there a few years ago. Her plan to spread some joy worked–at least one student has appreciated her efforts.

Here is the note she left at the end of the book. It says, “It’s been an incredible journey and I’m glad I was able to share it with you! I hope my little notes of encouragement helped you finish the book by making the task a little more fun! All I ask in return is that you keep this note and all of the others in place so future readers can have the same experience you did! Have a wonderful rest of your high school career and remember to follow your dreams and make an adventure, like our friend Huck, here did. [heart] Alexis, 2014”

Further proof that I work at the coolest school in the world!

alexis

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Censoring Huck Finn Dilutes Power

The new, redacted version of Huckleberry Finn (replacing all instances of the n-word with “slave”) is still a major topic of discussion, which is impressive enough, and more so as this hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, with the Arizona shooting.  Clearly, this event has brought out a lot of passion and opinions.  Much has been said about honoring Mark Twain’s intended language, about the nature of reality in the period that Twain wanted to depict in all of its ugliness, and about revisionist history (and censorship) as narcissistic navel-gazing.  All of that’s true, so I won’t labor the points here, but I think I have two good ideas to add to the discussion.

1)  There’s already a high school in a predominantly black part of my town where Huck Finn has been under a de facto ban for years, as the staff is worried that its use of the n-word will inflame the community.  I hope the community’s maturity would surprise them, but their worry exists with good reason for, as our attorney general has noted, when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards.  We’re afraid to discuss race for fear of being offensive.  If a group of white people is talking about race, and a black person is present, the mood changes, and everyone tiptoes on egg shells.  Whatever your race, you know this is true.  This isn’t because we’re all secretly hiding some bias, but because we’ve been trained to see racism everywhere, and we’re paranoid about our peers being suspicious.  Isn’t this sad? 

Censoring the n-word in Huck Finn will only make such problems worse, because it implies that there’s something wrong with the text, and if there’s something wrong with the text, it must be racism.  One of the problems with our society is its growing inability to see shades of gray, and this censorship will only reinforce the tendency to say that if something is frank and realistic about race, it must be racist.  The irony of this tragedy is that in Huck Finn (which is about racism, but not racist itself), the poor, oppressed black man is the ultimate hero (see below).  In a setting that Twain filled with white idiots, Jim is one of literature’s earliest black heroes. 

2)  Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?  Of course you do: Goldilocks goes exploring and finds a cottage in the woods.  She walks on in and, finding the place vacant, helps herself to their porridge and beds.  She falls asleep until the three bears come home and find her, whereupon she runs off.  The end. 

Ever realize just how pointless that story is?  That’s because that isn’t the story–like so many of our old fairy tales, our storybook version has been edited to protect us.  In the original, the bears come home and eat Goldilocks.  This ending carried a clear moral to it: straying too far from the established path into a wilderness, by yourself, is dangerous (also, breaking and entering is bad).  The edited ending not only “protects” us from violence, it renders the whole story meaningless. 

So also with a censored Huck FinnContinue reading

Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

American Lit Review

A group of students working on a review assignment for my American Literature class this week got creative and decided to write a mash-up of all our major novels from throughout the year.  I think I’ll end up reading a silly story about Atticus Finch defending Hester Prynne on charges of witchcraft (said case to be financed by Jay Gatsby), all to be done as they float down the Mississippi River on a raft as they all look for work as farm hands in California.  That is, of course, if they can kill the white whale first.