Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On Reading Aloud What is Difficult - My Response to the Lucky Debate

I've taught this lesson twice. I begin by reading the Author's Note in its entirety. Here are some of the most relevant passages.
On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest auction of slaves in American history took place in Savannah, Georgia. Some accounts put the number of slaves sold at 429, while others put it at 436. . . .

The 429 or 436 to be sold were placed on railroad cars and steamboats and taken to the Broeck racetrack in Savannah, where they were put in empty horse stalls. On the day of the auction, it started raining, and for the two days of the sale it rained torrentially. However, soon after the auction ended, the rain stopped and the sun came out. The sale became known as "the Weeping Time." . . .

History is not only an accounting of what happened when and where. It includes also the emotional biographies of those on whom history imposed itself with a cruelty that we can only dimly imagine. This book is another in my attempts to make real those who did not have the opportunity to tell their stories for themselves.

I read the title and front cover flap. I tell the students about the author. Before I read aloud, I tell students that I am about to do something that is difficult for me. I am going to read about a time, an event and ideas that I find revolting. I will tell them that they will hear words that will offend, shame and embarrass. In the week before this class session, I have secretly written to my African-American students, describing the book to them, warning them about what is coming, and making my best attempt to prepare them for the discussion that will follow.

The book is Day of Tears by Julius Lester. I read "The Kitchen." It begins with a series of monlogues and remembrances about the day, told from the perspective of a family of slaves (mother, father and daughter). "Interlude I" is a monologue by Emma (the slave daughter) as an old woman, and presents her remembrances of the auction. "The Dining Room" is largely monologues and dialogues of the master and slave seller, though a few other voices and perspectives are heard. I don't read beyond the second page of the chapter. Here are the last two paragraphs I read.
I want to tell them how sorry I am to have to do this. But I don't know if it would matter to them. I see them standing on the auction block and I wonder what they're thinking, what they're feeling. Some of them cry, but most don't show any emotion. Their faces are as blank as tree bark.

They probably aren't feeling anything. That's one of the ways niggers are different from white people. Their emotions are not as refined as ours. Things that would hurt a white man or woman don't affect them. If anybody tried to take my Sarah or Frances away from me, I think I would kill them. Their mother thought she could take them from me. By the time my lawyers got through she was grateful I allowed her to see the girls for two months every year.

These last words are so hard for me to read, so hard for students to hear. I stop. I ask them to close their eyes and just think for a moment. Breathe deeply. Open your eyes. I ask:
  • How do you feel?
    • Answers - angry, ashamed, awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable. Some blush, some fidget, others can't look at me or others in the classroom.

  • Could you read this aloud to a classroom full of kids? Kids of any race or ethnicity? Why or why not?
    • Answers - No. Absolutely not. It's too hard.

  • Would you want kids to read this?
    • Answers - Yes! All of them.

  • Then why not read it aloud? This is a difficult books that raises important issues. Why are you afraid to confront them? Why not talk about them?
    • Parents' won't like it. Kids will be uncomfortable. I'll be uncomfortable.
We keep talking, and the conversation goes deeper. The African-American students admit to being prepared in advance. They talk about the value of having been warned, how it raised their comfort level to know that I was aware this would be difficult, and how I told them outright that they would be safe in my classroom and that I would value their feelings and ideas. The class begs me to continue reading, but I don't. The book is long, it demands attention that I cannot give it in one class session, and begs to be read and pondered by each student individually. In the weeks that follow, some students borrow my copy, others write to say they have read it. It moves every one who reads it. It moves me.

Why this story? There are some things that are difficult to negotiate in the classroom. For me, words like the one in The Higher Power of Lucky simply don't present a challenge. Words that name anatomically correct parts of the human body and even their slang equivalents, need to be treated matter-of-factly. If the teacher (or librarian) doesn't make a big deal of it, neither will the kids. However, when it comes to issues that get to very core of who we are, how we treat others, and how history has treated people who are different, then I am challenged to think about how I can make my classroom a safe place for all students. I worry about the words that I must read aloud, the ones the author has chosen for a very specific purpose, that I know will offend or hurt. Should I skip over or leave out the n-word when I read Day of Tears? At the end of the discussion, I ask my students this very question. They all say no.

I believe these are the issues we should be discussing, and not the (somewhat) foolish comments of a few folks who feel that the word scrotum is offensive.

**Just Added - Forgive me for being behind the times, as I've been out of town for several days. Over at educating alice, Monica Edinger wrote about this very topic before I did. She, of course, presents her ideas much more eloquently. Please head on over and check out What I Do With Discomforting Words, Scrotum Not Being One of Them.


  1. Wow--that is tough. I would read it as is with the explanation. That is very powerful and I'm sure that the conversations are powerful, too.

  2. A great post--such an important issue. I am almost finished with The Higher Power of Lucky and see the word "scrotum" as a non-issue now that I have almost read the entire book. I agree that it is not difficult compared to real issues that are hard and big.

  3. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Tricia,

    This is a completely fantastic lesson. Fantastic. If you get every single one of those students to think hard about why this book needs to be read, how they are going to deal with difficult, but important matter like this --- well, you have totally succeeded.


  5. Hi Monica,
    Thanks so much for writing. I do hope these students walk away from class thinking critically about the value of reading aloud, even when it entails reading difficult subject matter. And I hope that this experience helps prepare them to deal with the diversity they will face in their own classrooms.

  6. Thank you for this post. I struggle with reading these heart breaking books too. There have been a lot of books I have blogged about in the past six months that I said to myself "I can't read this out loud to a child. I just can't bear it - it's too painful." But of course those are the books we need to read. It might often seem easier at first to just avoid the horrifying true topics, but once you brave the discomfort and open it up there is no more important work than learning to talk about it and allowing others to do the same. Isn't the classroom one of the places we should be able to do that? Home being the first place, of course. Thank you so much for this post and this lesson.