When I first accepted the assignment of teaching language arts at a local high school in Eugene, Ore., I was excited and nervous. The idea of discussing literature, dissecting themes and conflicts, and analyzing plots and symbolism with young minds was a challenge. I considered it an honor, but I knew it wouldn’t all be fun and games; I knew there were potential pitfalls ahead.
At the time, I’d just finished reading Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I went to hear Díaz speak at a local event, and I asked him what he thought of my teaching his novel given its controversial themes. His advice to me was simple: “Don’t try it. You are a black male teacher in a country greatly lacking that demographic. Don’t get your ass in trouble over my book. Stick to the canon.” Little did I know the canon was also full of trouble spots.
My school’s student population was primarily white, with some Latino and a handful of black students. The staff was far less diverse. In fact, I was the only black teacher, male or female, among nearly 100 educators, and there were no Latino teachers. In a funny way, this worked in my favor at first. I was new. I was exotic. I had dreadlocks, and many of my students joked that I resembled the rapper Lil Wayne. I think I also had a certain level of “street cred.” I let students know early on that I was raised in the slums of New York City and the main thing that I felt had saved me and expanded my world was education. I wanted them to know I valued learning and I wanted them to value it too.
I am also a quadriplegic, a victim of gun violence. I didn’t volunteer this information, but many students learned it on their own through online research. This gave me a certain cachet that took me only so far once we got deeper into the semester.
My students’ varied responses to literary works surprised me. Those I thought might take to Sandra Cisneros found her boring. Others I thought might like Frank McCourt were unimpressed by his work. Maya Angelou? Meh to many. Of course, a select few students—those I referred to as the “perpetually profound”—were moved by them all, but these were in the minority.
I learned early on in the classroom that one size will never fit all. Student A is going to be touched by the struggles of a young boy in a concentration camp. Student B could care less but will be captivated by the friendship of two boys in Afghanistan. And you can never predict who will take to what themes. I found myself repeatedly surprised by the “class clown” who loved Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and the girls’ basketball star who related to Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
To my surprise and pleasure, the book that received nearly unanimous approval was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Students were taken with the strength and sassiness of young Richard, and they were shocked and appalled by the fear and brutality of the Jim Crow South. Many of them could relate to his family dysfunction and his yearning for respect in a society that refused to accept him as a whole person. And this is what students need more than anything else—a tie-in, a moment of empathy, something that makes them think, if only for a moment, “Hey, I’ve been there before.” This is why Romeo and Juliet is such a tough sell. Yes, of course students understand young love, but not warring families speaking in Elizabethan dialect.
Before my classes started reading Black Boy, we had a very healthy discussion about the constant use of the term “nigger,” and we looked at its etymology. This was somewhat controversial and thus all the more alluring to my students. Very likely no one had ever had a conversation like that with them before. My fellow teachers, I urge you: Never underestimate the power of a scandalous topic. Proper guidance and scaffolding can bring about many fantastic and teachable moments. Both you, and your students, will benefit greatly.
McGill is a writer and artist. He taught high school language arts and journalism courses in Oregon. He is the author of the memoir Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me.