Sunday, March 29, 2009

Should Huck Finn Be Taught to High School Students?

Yesterday I presented at the annual Reading the World Conference on multicultural children’s literature at USF in San Francisco. My Co-Presenters were Craig and Derrick from Reach and Teach, a progressive education company that sells my book, The Call to Shakabaz, and provides teachers with materials to inspire young people to take action for peace, justice, and social change. After our presentation, we were free to do as we pleased and I attended a workshop entitled “Courageous Conversations: Does Huck Finn Belong in Your Classroom?” presented by Willie Adams of the Head Royce School in Oakland. Mr. Adams is a Black educator, a dean at Head Royce, and a filmmaker.

The title of this workshop grabbed me not just because of the provocative question it asks, but because my own daughter Yael hated Huck Finn with such a passion that she began skipping English class to avoid discussing the book when in high school, and finally sparked a significant change in her own classroom in the way the teacher and class approached the book after she came clean with the teacher about her issues with Huck Finn. Huck is a problem.

In 2004, a Black English teacher at Head Royce told Mr. Adams that he was planning to get a group of Black students together to talk about their experience studying this book at a predominantly Anglo/Euro upscale private school and he invited Mr. Adams to film this discussion. They filmed the students, then the teachers, then others, all talking about the dilemma of teaching Huck Finn, which is a required text in the California Framework, is considered a great American novel, appears on the AP English Exam, and is fixed in the cannon of great literature. The value of Huck Finn as a literary work was not the question. The question was really, “Are high school students, sophomores or juniors (usually it is taught junior year with American Literature), really prepared to handle this book?” And also, “Are teachers prepared to teach this book to young people of all races?”

After we viewed a segment of the film, the participants at yesterday’s workshop jumped into a heated discussion. Some of the things that were said follow:
Students need to feel safe in a classroom to have a real discussion about Huck Finn and the students at Head Royce in the film clearly did not feel safe in their classrooms.
High school students are definitely not mature enough to handle this difficult book.
But will they be at a disadvantage in college because they haven’t read it? It’s part of the cannon, it’s referred to by many other authors and is the basis for so many other significant pieces of writing. They will have to confront these issues about slavery, racism, and our country’s history eventually, why delay?
It’s hard enough teaching Twain’s use of satire, without dealing with the strong emotions that surface around the portrayal of Jim in this book and the constant use of the N-word (like on every page). A contemporary adolescent will not get that this book was a condemnation of the institution of slavery. It doesn’t read that way in 2009. It reads as the opposite.
Is it fair to put Black students or students of color on the spot like this with a text like this? It’s 400 pages long, for goodness sake. That’s a lot of book about slavery and racism for teenagers to stomach.
An Anglo/Euro teacher from Tennessee said, “If you think this is hard in California, imagine teaching this book to a class of Black and white students in Tennessee?”
A Black librarian from Baltimore said, “We underestimate our students. I think they can and should be able to read this book, but teachers must create a safe place for real discussion about the issues it raises. If this is done, then this book can have a strong transformative power to help heal race relations.”

How much should we protect our children from the truth? When are they old enough to begin conversations of substance about race? As a parent of half-Black children (and half-Black boys), I remember the day I talked to my boys about the fact that the friendly neighborhood police officer, like the one they saw on Sesame Street, was not necessarily their friend too. It broke my heart. But I fear for their safety.

If you have an interest in following some of the discussion in the wide world about Huck Finn, just google the words “should huck finn be taught.” Click here to read a recent article about it in the L.A. Times.

Mr. Adams ended the workshop by telling us that Huck Finn is no longer taught in the Oakland Schools, despite the fact that it is in the California Framework of required reading; and since 2004 (when he made his film), it is no longer taught at Head Royce. What did they substitute in it’s stead at Head Royce? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – also a very difficult book to read. The debate rages on.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Art as an Old Friend

Last night I watched Peter Weir’s The Last Wave with Sudi. He is taking a class in world literature (senior English) and they are studying Australia and NZ. When we were looking for a book for him to read for class, I started thinking about The Last Wave. So I ordered it from Netflix. Peter Weir says he was interested in making a film about a scientific-minded man who has a premonition. That’s exactly what happens. This Anglo man (played by Richard Chamberlain) has dreams about a cataclysmic disaster. They make no sense to him and he goes on a quest to figure them out. The famous aborigine actor Gulpilil eventually gives him the key to understanding, but it’s too late for him to act on his premonition by then. I could certainly watch Gulpilil on the screen all day, he’s so beautiful (you may remember him from Walkabout). When Sudi first saw the aborigines in the film, he commented, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone who looks like that.” They are certainly unusual. Dark indigenous people. Very dark. Sudi loved the ambient sound of the film, made from water noises, distorted human voices, and a suspense-building digeridoo.

The film was made in 1977 and I loved it when I saw it when it first came out. (Click here to see the trailer.) My favorite moment is when Chamberlain warns Gulpilil that he’s in big trouble, because he is mixed up in a murder case. Gulpilil responds, “No, you are in big trouble. You don’t know what dreams are anymore.” Aborigines believe that everything happens in two dimensions at once, practical time (real world) and “dreamtime” (spirit world). Chamberlain’s character opens a portal into dreamtime, but he can’t make any sense of what he sees there because he is too out of touch with spirit and, in fact, has never allowed himself to “believe” it exists. Instead of opening to possibility, he is terrified of the mystery.

Seeing the film again was like visiting with an old friend. A friend with whom I spent a lot of time once but who, through geography and life choices, has become distant. Then when I see this friend again, and sit down for a good few hours, visit, talk, laugh, I remember exactly why I love her/him so much. I am reminded of a similar experience with a painting. In 1985, the art museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, brought a retrospective of Impressionist paintings over from Paris. Ron and I and some of our friends from Berkeley went to the exhibit together. I had last seen many of these paintings while traveling through Europe as a student in the mid-70s. In 1985, a young mom, with Yael in a carry-pack on my back, I wandered through the exhibit looking at these same paintings I had loved when I saw them for the first time at the Jeu de Paume. Interestingly, the Impressionist paintings were originally placed in the Jeu de Paume because the established French art world considered them too avant-garde for the Louvre. Maybe a passing fad. They didn’t want to put any of them in the Louvre, so they made a separate museum for them, and that’s where they remain to this day.

One Impressionist painting in particular, of carpenters refinishing a wood floor, captured my imagination. It is The Floor-scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte. The light in the painting is extraordinary, quite impossible to replicate in any reproduction. For me, it was the quintessential Impressionist mastery of depicting light in painting, and therefore the heart and soul of the Impressionist movement. Seeing the original painting again was like visiting with a dear friend after many years apart, same as watching The Last Wave.

Art as an old friend.

Here’s the Caillebotte:



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Facebook Snobbery

It finally happened. I elected NOT to be friends on Facebook with someone whom I know. An e-snub. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I know this guy will be posting 50 new pictures and messages a day and I don’t want to know about it. There are people I am already friends with on Facebook whom I regret accepting because they send so many messages and post so much stuff. I selected Facebook settings to restrict what comes into my email, even so, my emailbox is clogged with Facebook messages every morning. So-and-so has a pimple. So-and-so just posted a picture of herself dancing ballet in sixth grade. So-and-so joined the group Save the Salamanders and wants you to join too. So-and-so is in a relationship, wait no they’re not, no wait yes they are, no, it’s complicated, no, now they’re single but if you check back at noon they’ll be married. I can’t keep up. Today I’m changing my settings so nothing from Facebook comes into my email. I love email. I even (horrors) use the telephone occasionally.

I created a Facebook account for myself back in the fall of 2006 when I was preparing to publish my book. I read that it would help get the word out and sell copies if I joined all these social networking sites. So I made a presence on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, Second Life, blah-blah, bleeh-bleeh, and bloo-bloo. I created a blog. I started an e-zine. Now I have to ask myself, What am I? A woman or an avatar?

Last month, after reading another article about how important it is to have yourself on Facebook to sell books, I “tricked out” my Facebook account with all the trimmings I could muster. Suddenly, a bevy of close friends and relatives discovered me on Facebook and started communicating with me there. Then I started to get these emails from long lost friends and lovers and friends of lovers and lovers of friends and people I didn’t even know (and people I knew but never really liked) inviting me to be their friend on Facebook. So I drew my line in the dirt. I am friends on Facebook with a few close friends and family, an occasional fun acquaintance. But this is getting too big, like a marshmallow in the microwave. I don’t want to be Facebook friends with business acquaintances whom I have never met. Like the guy I snubbed. Akili (my son) has refused to accept invitations to be friends with many friends and relatives because he doesn’t want them knowing all his personal business that appears in his interactions with his peers at college. That’s fair enough. But he is worried they will be insulted when he refuses their invitation. I didn’t bother to invite him to be friends for the same reason that I don’t read my daughter’s blog. Too much information. None of my business. I would not have wanted my mother to read my personal correspondence to my friends in Europe when I was 25.

What happened to email? I like email. It’s private. How did this Facebook stuff snowball so that close family now sends me public messages on my Facebook wall instead of emailing me privately? My husband, in the other room, is posting to my Facebook wall that he’s about to run out for a loaf of bread. Should I be worried? I guess I’m OK until he switches his profile from “married” to “it’s complicated.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

More Trees

The trees are the keepers of the earth. I often wonder how they communicate with each other, for I know they do, but how? I spent my week this past week again very much in the presence of the trees. It is bare root season and the time of year for transplanting. In my new yard, so vacant, so open, so lacking in trees, it’s difficult to pass up the opportunity to populate the land with trees. Buying bare root is inexpensive. The ground is soaked and cuts like butter. I sound like a gardening brochure.

I actually didn’t plant that many trees. I just got a forest’s worth of pleasure out of the few I planted. I have always wanted to have a gingko in my yard. Now I have one. When I was growing up in Schenectady, I often visited the Jackson Gardens at Union College. A centerpiece of the garden was a giant gingko tree. Visiting children, such as myself, were allowed to climb into it. The main branches of the enormous trunk wrapped around each other to create a cradle low to the ground, easy for children to mount. I often climbed into that tree and sat, gazing out at the gardens, pretending I was the queen of the domain. By the time the little gingko in my yard would be as big as the one in Jackson Gardens I will have turned to ash long ago. But I like to imagine it will still be here, in this yard, for some future children to climb.

On Friday, Ron and I had the opportunity to visit a grove of splendid coastal trees. We drove down to Mount Tamalpais where our friends Jerry and Alexis are staying at a magnificent cabin overlooking the ocean. Jerry and Alexis retired in the fall, after selling their store, Afikomen, in Berkeley, and they are doing a six-month stint as the caretakers/hosts of the Steep Ravine State Campsite in Mount Tamalpais State Park. They care for ten cabins and some campsites on the edge of the world. They took us on a walk in the forest across the road from the rocky coastline that is temporarily their home. We stepped softly among the large coastal trees, including many Redwoods, some hundreds of years old. We walked a path that led to a small waterfall that fed into a brook that tumbled over rocks under a fallen Redwood that formed a bridge over the water. From the fallen Redwood grew a half a dozen live Redwoods, all growing up straight from the fallen tree. Some grew out of the fallen tree where it lay above the water. The fallen tree was perhaps two or three hundred years old and some of those growing from it easily more than one hundred.

We paused by this splendid cluster of trees for quite a time. I remain awed by the resilience of these creatures. This fallen Redwood persevered and fostered these many other trees, straight from it’s trunk, even though downed and beyond repair. What spectacular beauty this tree wrested from the heart of a long-ago disaster.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Planting Trees

Yesterday I did not turn my computer on for the first time in I don’t know how long. I have worked every weekend for the past month and this weekend I decided not to work. I didn’t even check email. Where was I? In the garden planting trees.

In the early 1970s, my parents took me to France, to a little town outside Paris called Maule (which I may have misspelled). My cousins Joseph and Yael had a country place of about 3 acres in Maule (they had an apartment in Paris). They were Holocaust survivors. Joseph (who spent 18 months in Auschwitz at the end of the war) gave us a tour of his orchard at Maule. It was his pride and joy. He had taught himself how to propagate and graft fruit trees. I was a surly teenager at the time and didn’t appreciate the orchard, although, to my credit, I did sit under one of his prune trees and write in my journal. I remember that Yael asked my parents how much land they owned in the U.S. We lived in the suburbs, so we had about a half-acre yard. When they told her this, Yael asked, “What trees do you grow?” She was astounded to learn that we had no fruit trees and very few trees at all on the property. “What do you use it for then?” she asked, bewildered.

As an adult, I have become a planter of trees and Yael’s question stays with me. I can’t imagine a home without trees in the yard. Many trees. Especially fruit trees. Our new home has two mature apple trees that did not bear fruit this past summer, one pear tree that did bear fruit but we don’t eat pears much, and one plum tree that bore heaps of plums that we enjoyed for weeks and gave away in bunches. I hope that by feeding the apple trees, I can coax them to produce this coming summer. The plum is in full bloom right now with breathtaking white blossoms.

Yesterday I hit the bare root sale at the local nursery. And there’s no sales tax on food plants! Even though it was pouring rain, I planted three cherry trees and two apricots. I also planted three blueberry bushes and two tiny wisteria vines. I got absolutely soaked and covered in mud and had more fun than I’ve had since the Inaugural Ball. Right now, as I dash this off, in order to say that I blogged this week, I am watching the quail, with their spiky topknot, skitter back and forth across the street as they dodge the raindrops. The neighbor’s ornamental cherry blooms pink near two large birches and several gracefully scraggy Live Oaks bedecked with lichens. My spindly young chocolate birch, that I planted outside my office window in the fall, sways slightly in the breeze. I can’t wait to see what my birch looks like when it leafs out.

Yael passed into spirit several years ago, an old woman, well into her 90s. I still think of her often. I named my daughter after her. Look at what trees we grow, Yael. Look at what trees.