On Teaching a Banned Book

JANUARY 22, 2023 TALBIRDSEY

Letter from Tal

On Thursday, we were reading a passage from The Bluest Eye in class. Morrison writes, “Their voices blended into a threnody of nostalgia about pain.” This word, threnody, is so beautiful. It comes from two Greek roots, meaning, “wailing” and “song.” The Bluest Eye is itself a threnody, a beautiful, tragic, awe-inspiring work in which the beauty of life and love is beheld alongside the tragedy of the dissolution of beauty and love.  It’s also a brutal story, horrifying, upsetting, disturbing, and painful to read. 

And of course, it’s a book that’s been banned. It’s a book that can’t be taught in Florida. It is demanding and powerful.

I always have to check myself when we read books like this. Is it too much? Is it serving our purpose? Can it teach us? Show us something valuable? Does it show us the reality of human being, in a truthful, artful way? Does it meaningfully relate, in one way or another, to the issues that arise naturally in the lives of our students? Can we grow from reading it together? Can we relate it to what we are studying or learning about? Does it inspire deep conversation, new thought, unfolding understanding? Does it link with what we have read in past years, and give us new insight into the lives and times of others, so that we may then come back to our own lives and times with a greater perspective?

     The Bluest Eye meets every one of these prerequisites. Its manifold qualities are further enhanced by the fact that we have been studying the historical background which undergirds the psychological and sociological landscape of the book. Yet still I check myself. 

        On Friday, I asked the kids, “Is it too much?” 

        “It’s disturbing, but that’s good,” someone said.

        That reply got me thinking. To be disturbed. To have the calm surface roiled a bit so what is dormant or submerged gets lifted and moving. Great and complicated concepts—love, beauty, childhood, suffering, survival, endurance, the psychology of pain, generational violence, poverty, nobility, compassion, yearning, memory, hope—often in schools these topics, as such, are bypassed. Reading a book like The Bluest Eye demands that we feel each of these ideas in terms of human lives, characters who are at once like us and not like us at all. We have to see and feel for ourselves what the world actually is though the blazing truth of the lives in the story. Morrison shows of the real world of living—sometimes ugly and painful, yes—but whatever is life should concern us. And we should not be afraid: we live in the world of the book, reading it together, and then we are returned to our own lives with renewed understanding, deeper knowledge, and greater compassion.

        I told the students that I trust Toni Morrison. I give myself over to her voice, her animating powers, her perspective, her experience, her art. In her hands, I see with her eyes, know through her knowing. She writes about, and with, the power of love. The artifact she has given contains her heart and the broken hearts of those she portrays. And yet, reading about suffering is not inherently hurtful, as Yeats wrote in “Lapis Lazuli”:

                All men have aimed at, found and lost;

                Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:

                Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

                Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,

                And all the drop scenes drop at once

                Upon a hundred thousand stages,

                It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

A book does not hurt us, nor instruct us to be hurtful, nor make us something we wish not to be. A book does not lead us into temptation, nor deliver us from evil. Rather, great books any way, simply open doors to what is possible, what is true and beautiful, what is worth saving and protecting and fighting for, what is precious to behold. So I find myself emphatically on the side of reading demanding and powerful books, books “wrought to the uttermost.” I want to be engaging with students in the places of the “uttermost,” in demanding, powerful, and revelatory conversations. I want my students to be a little disturbed, and to ask why, and to see what can be discovered in answer. I sit with them every day and do this. Looking at life—our lives, historical lives, the lives portrayed in art—head-on, with courage, curiosity, and empathy—we can perhaps come closer to imagining something like heaven.

***

We raised a lot of money for financial aid on the day of the Penguin Plunge. The kids came into it with the perfect balance of excitement, commitment, trepidation, and resolve. They all sent out letters to family and friends, explaining what we were going to do. They asked for support in the form of pledges. Family and friends were universally happy to support this crazy adventure.

Then the real adventure began. Cars pulled into the driveway. Families trudged up the hill. We all stood by the pond at the edge of the woods. A new few inches of snow, the tree limbs laced with filigrees of white, the black and gray lines of trees, smoke from the sauna, and heat rising from the stove pipe. Dogs running across the frozen pond. Little kids and siblings sliding down the hill. A bonfire in the school’s rusted fire pit. Hot water, Chai, coffee tea, baked treats. The kids appearing pond-side wrapped in towels, readying themselves. Then, in icy, wet, frigid slippery succession in they went. Stepping to the edge, grabbing onto the hands of Tal and Rose, with the whole school community cheering, and striding boldly into the black water, going under, coming up, spinning and turning to the bank, gasping, grasping for hands, back to the edge, wrapped in towels and more cheers, and into the house for warmth. In a mere hour, every student had gone under and come up, and we’d raised more money than any Penguin Plunge ever.

Later I got a little note from Wiley’s mom, Sara, who made a few observations, using as her launching point Cheryl Strayed’s title, Tiny Beautiful Things.

Tiny Beautiful Things:

Rose’s wet pants, from knee to thigh

Tal’s glove gripped tightly in kids’ hands

Teachers reaching to students

Students reaching, eyes closed, for hands they knew were there

Trust + encouragement = courage

Wiley: last year gripped so tightly, didn’t let go, climbed out backwards

This year, jumped in without hands

All captured by Steve

This is what school is for. This is good education.

In haiku-like compression, these words contain the essence of a single hour in January in the Green Mountain, which contains the essence of a school where growth is happening in the classroom and out of it, where a moment can contain a story, where life and learning are so inter-fused that it is hard to know where one ends and the other begins. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asks Yeats. The answer is, we can not. They are one and the same.

***

          Moments like the Penguin Plunge make everything we are doing become momentarily visible. But there is much that goes unseen, though you might read about it in the Weekly Notes the kids write every week. Lil recalls a moment last year, watching Graeham turn in his lit response. Cullen reflects on the difficulty in deciding what to focus his attention on–the horrifying car crash that occurred on Thursday morning, or a moment of shared time with his brother. Jack shows Graeham his coding project. Our lit book connects to our projects on The Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and W.E.B. Du Bois. We are talking about the power of the master narrative in The Bluest Eye—how it bends us, or how we defy it— and Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness” as it relates to African American History and ourselves. We are learning about Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Ida B. Wells. We are learning that history has hidden corners and deep caverns that have been little explored, like the Massacre on Black Wall Street in 1921, or the theater founded by Anita Bush in Harlem in the 1920s. Colvin reads Wislawa Szymborska’s “Miracle Fair” in the morning, and for a brief moment, we realize we are living in our own fair of miracles, and all we have to do is look around. Characters like Pecola’s mother are given a voice, and then pain and beauty can be seen and felt, here, in a little classroom in Vermont in 2023.

  We are asking questions that philosophers and theologians and psychologists ask: What is good? What is true? What is beautiful? How many kinds of love are there? How does one learn to love? Or, as Lila asked, “I am the same person I was three years ago, but I am also not the same. How is this? And isn’t it amazing?” We learn, for instance, the following facts: Humans have been around for .002 % of the world’s existence; Hatites are flightless birds; that Alain Locke, the great promoter of the spiritual and artistic coming of age that was the Harlem Renaissance, was gay; that Bob Dylan wrote a song about Emmett Till; that “Yo Mama” jokes are part of an important sociolinguistic tradition in African American culture; that assimilation and “uplift suasion” are two modes that have defined how African-Americans have grappled with a rightful place in this nation; that the teachers at NBS take everything we do with utmost seriousness–as in the year-long field drawing journals: once we commit, we have to stay committed. External threats to do good work are pointless. Each of us must find our reasons and ways to do the best we can, set our own standards, and then have the resolve and discipline to move in the direction we have set for ourselves. We learn that each day is filled with hundreds of moments of possibility: for laughing, understanding, trying, complimenting, seeing anew, helping, listening, adding to the mix, appreciating others. 

Meanwhile, there is a play being written. We don’t know what is about. We don’t know who will do what. We have no idea of its theme and narrative structure, or where it is set. All of that will be worked out over the next three months. In the end, there will be a play, a kind of dance that was made in the dark and in secret, after long hours of negotiation and inspiration and the combustion of kids with a dream to make something together.  And when it comes out, it will be all of us, everyone together in a way that not ever be plotted in a rubric, quantified via the common standards, or evaluated via an assessment of any kind.  It will be as it should be: fluid and rough-edged, childlike and poetic and unrestrained, indefinable and mysterious and marvelous. 

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