By Karen Morrill
Last January, MPR published a commentary I wrote on the difficulties of teaching "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Shortly thereafter, I got a call from a "60 Minutes" producer who read the piece.
The show was in the middle of research for a segment on the NewSouth edition of "Huck Finn" in which the N-word has been replaced by "slave." Could the show send out a crew to interview me, my colleagues and my students?
Two producers and a correspondent, Byron Pitts, arrived Feb. 2 to film an episode they said would be about the struggles of teachers in teaching "Huck Finn." They began shooting at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 11:30 pm. Of those hours, only a few minutes were aired as part of the final segment.
The 12-minute segment concludes with the implication that vocalizing the N-word provides an irreplaceable teachable moment. That's a bunch of Huck. "Huck Finn" is full of teachable moments.
Yes, the N-word is repeated 219 times, but there are almost 300 pages of Twain's deadpan satire of the folly, absurdity and foolishness of white bigots and mob mentality. Ironically, in my interview with Pitts, whenever I tried to bring up all these teachable moments, he boomeranged back to his "60 Minutes" spin: "Why don't you say the N-word in class?"
I have my reasons. The best thing I can do as a teacher is not tell my students what to think, but provide them with skills to think and write critically and creatively on their own. Their emotional response to the text is valid no matter what anyone else says.
If a word makes a kid cringe, who am I to tell him that it should not? If vocalizing that word subtracts from the rich marshland of meaning in the book, why would I draw more attention to it? The African-Americans interviewed by Pitts validated my point of view. The "teachable moment" mantra was embraced by University of Oregon Prof. David Bradley, who insists if we all just say the word aloud over and over, somehow, magically, all its power will fade away.
Pitts and "60 Minutes" were not interested in my teaching philosophy. They were interested in why I would not speak a virulent racial epithet. In my two-hour interview with Pitts, I tried to discuss the complex ways "Huck Finn" deals with race. But he was interested in only that one simple word.
I knew from the beginning that allowing "60 Minutes" to step into my classroom was a risk for me, and because of that I didn't allow myself to be seduced by the attentions of producers and crew. When I refused to be interviewed with a colleague -- whose point of view is that saying the N-word is essential to the teaching of the book -- I was lobbied by the producers and Pitts to change my mind. They wanted a cat fight.
A producer left me a voice mail that implied if I didn't do the interview with my colleague, I might look bad in the end. I did not return her call. Clearly, they are used to their non-famous subjects bowing to the promise of soft lighting and a bright spotlight.
What did I learn from all this? Words matter, but how the message is spun matters more.
Karen Morrill, a teacher at Woodbury High School, is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.