Professor recognizes race, humanity

Notice: The following column contains language that may be offensive.

On most days, Katrina was loud and funny and inappropriate. This week, she was quiet and irritable. When she stormed out of the classroom, I knew I had to follow her. My ninth grade English class was not very far into Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” yet I could already sense her discomfort and frustration.

“Katrina, what’s wrong?” “I’m not reading it.”

“Why not?”

“Nigger this and nigger that.

We didn’t have to read shit like this in California.”

Tears welled in her eyes; she looked away and continued to repeat those two phrases over and over as if she wasn’t even speaking to me anymore.

“I promise you that you will love this book when you’re done. I won’t even pretend to know what it’s like to hear that word over and over again, but Katrina, this book is not racist. Some characters are racist— that’s for sure. Do me a favor. Look at my face, Katrina: focus on Scout. When you get tired of all the crap, focus on Scout. This book will get harder to read in many ways, but please focus on Scout.”

Later that week, I noticed Donny wasn’t bringing his book to class either. He was failing most reading and vocabulary quizzes, and he always looked dazed during class discussions.

Donny was dirty and smelly. He couldn’t read well, and he held on tightly to his learning disability.

“Donny, why aren’t you reading?”

“I dunno. Don’t feel like it. It’s a stupid book.”

I had noticed recently that Donny always, unsuccessfully, tried to talk to Katrina before and after class. I also caught him stealing glances of her during the period. Grasping for anything, I said, “Katrina’s starting to like the book. It pisses her off most of the time, but I think she likes it.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“Well, maybe the two of you could read it together and talk about it.”

“It’s just a book about a stupid little girl in the South.”

“See, you know that much. You’re half-way there. Just keep trying. Focus on Scout, Donny.
You’ll like her even if she is a stupid little girl from the South.” I’m not going to lie and tell you this next part actually happened. It didn’t. Life went on as usual. But if I were a movie producer for Disney, and I wanted a touchy-feely ending to connect with these two dialogues, then this is what I would write:

We only had a week left before we moved on to Greek Mythology, but most kids were actually reading the book. At the end of each class, I read a few pages aloud, but, for some reason, today, I kept reading. They actually looked engaged.

Jem was trying to explain to Scout the reality of the world: “You know something, Scout? I’ve got it all figured out, now. I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There are the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.”

After much more explaining, Scout responds, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

“That’s what I thought, too, when I was your age,” Jem says. “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?”

I looked up from the book and stared at these kids that fit Jem’s description perfectly, and then I thought of my words to Katrina and Donny. Focus on Scout.

Here’s what really happened: Katrina read and liked the book. Donny read it too, but Katrina was pissed at me because Donny wouldn’t leave her alone.

Stratman is the associate professor of English at JBU. He can be reached at jstratman@jbu.edu.