This summer I had the fortunate opportunity to travel throughout the United States on a 17 day road trip with my family.
We left Minnesota before noon, with somewhat apprehensive teenagers who wondered how they would manage to spend so much family tent and car time together.
Thanks to 2 audio books, 6 downloaded movies on the iPad, Pocket Planes, coffee houses, food co-ops, beautiful scenery, wild animals, good friends, fantastic weather, car scavenger hunts, cool towns, city beaches and skateboard parks we were able to cherish each day together.
What this time away from home also gave us, was the opportunity to see people and places. It figuratively and literally expanded our perspectives.
So often we keep ourselves in places where we feel comfortable – spending time in our “tribes” with the people who think, act, talk, dress, eat like us.
And, although this sense of belonging is vital to our humanity, I think it can be dangerous if we are not willing to share stories across our tribes.
In her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story – author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
5000 miles, 3 major metropolitan cities later, gave our family some great opportunities for making memories that will most likely become family stories. Meanwhile, it also gave us (as I noted above) an opportunity to listen to the stories of others.
As we made our way from Sisters, Oregon to Joseph, Oregon (a spectacular 9 hour drive through the high desert mountains) we listened to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.
This book, was funny, heart-breaking, and got me thinking about how vital it is that my white students see people who look different from them.
We are doing our white sons a disservice by not showing them stories of people who look differently, speak differently, think differently, live differently from them. We are positioning our white boys as the center of the universe – something that just isn’t true.
Meanwhile, we are erasing the faces and stories of people of color, of women.
We listened to Noah narrate his own story, and although at times it was hard to follow the sequence of the book, (it jumps back and forth – organized more by themes, than by a sequential time-line) there were many memorable moments and powerful quotes.
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”
― Trevor Noah,
After the book ended, the car got quiet and you could hear the thinking and processing of the family. Later we talked about equity, about systems of oppression in Apartheid South Africa and in the current oppressive systems in the United States.
We talked about the American Dream and the myth of meritocracy. Noah speaks to this through his own parables/analogies including the following quote that resonated with me:
“People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”
After we finished Born a Crime, we had the most excruciatingly long and beautiful travel left – Joseph, Oregon to Bozeman, Montana to South Haven, Minnesota. The only planned stop was a quick overnight sleep in Bozeman. Thus, we needed an audio book that would keep us going for the next 22 hours.
Hearing nothing but rave reviews from folks who spoke at Hamline University’s Summer Literacy Institute, I had downloaded the audio of Angie Thomas’s new book The Hate U Give before we left Minnesota.
The audiobook is read by actress Bahni Turpin, and I loved the voices she gives each character – especially the privileged white girl friends of sixteen year old Starr Carter.
The book was incredibly relevant, and unfortunately, it could honestly read as non-fiction as there are too many stories of Black men and women’s lives being literally and figuratively erased.
The book reads like a film and so I’m not surprised to see that the movie is already in the making.
As we listened, I thought about whether or not students would relate or find the book interesting if it was an assigned classroom read. I considered, and connected themes from The Hate U Give to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one the books that has been, and is currently taught to many ninth graders around the state, including the students of Buffalo High School. The teaching of Mockingbird has been dialogued about in our English department as we shift from teaching common texts to teaching common themes, standards, and essential questions.
I found this interesting blogpost by Canadian English teacher, Ms. Haley, who has taught for over 36 years with reasons why to teach Harper Lee’s novel, and reasons why we should abandon this book as a whole class read.
5 reasons to teach it
1. It is about discrimination, racism, cruelty and growing up-all topics that teenagers connect with.
2. It is well-written and has a pleasing, somewhat circular plot. I suspect Harper Lee had read a fair amount of Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.
3. The characters are archetypal. We love the wise father, the pitiable monster, the villain etc.
4. The narrator, Scout, is a delight. She has an ironic view of life but at the same time, is innocent. She is also a strong female role model.
5. Written at the time of the civil rights movement but set in an earlier time period, it reflects an important part of American history and exposes practices that young people may not be familiar with.
6 reasons to not teach it
1. It has an old-fashioned writing style and the vocabulary is very sophisticated. There is nothing wrong with students learning new words but it may also prevent a lot of students from understanding and connecting with the novel. The first chapter alone has at least 20 uncommon and archaic words like “flivver” “beadle” “unsullied”.
2. The characters are stereotypes especially Atticus, Bob Ewell and Tom Robinson.
3. It is about racism seen through the eyes of a white person trying not to offend too many people in 1960. In spite of the storyline, it really doesn’t expose the ugliness of racism and of the world that she describes. It’s all very benign even though Tom Robinson dies. Today’s student is used to a harsher view from both the media and their own experience. They understand what happens but don’t necessarily connect with it because it is sugar-coated in the story.
4. The book was written for adults not teenagers. We see the world through the eyes of a wise child looking back at the events. Many of my students do not see the irony in her voice because they lack either the background knowledge to recognize the references or they are not mature enough readers to appreciate it. If it has to be explained a lot, there is something missing for the reader.
5. The movie version, though dated, is very true to the novel . How many of our students have “watched” the novel and read only pieces of it? In the same vein, there is a plethora of summaries etc. available online to boost the students’ understanding.
6. Finally, there is the ongoing attack that has been leveled at the novel: Atticus, the great white father etc. This is really like # 3 but from a more scholarly perspective. There are many critics of the novel and their points cannot be ignored.
I do think that Angie Thomas’ book would be a way for students to see a story about a person of color, from the perspective of a women author who is a person of color.
I also think students would find strong connections between the book and things happening in our backyard – especially the Philando Castille story. Perhaps pairing this book with Mockingbird, and including other books like All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, could be a great way to get our students talking and reading about systems of justice in a racist society.
Teachers might give students the choice of the three books and create literature circles. Podcasts like 74 Seconds: Who Was Phillando Castille? could also be paired with the book, and other narrative non-fiction podcasts, films, books, and articles.
Ultimately, I think we need to rediscover a way to connect students with reading and with each other, especially in a time where our differences not only divide but destroy.
“people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right. Maybe”
― Angie Thomas,
Our trip also gave us the opportunity to spend loads of time in nature. It was uncomfortable, peaceful, and awe-inspiring.
Here’s to leaning in to listen. To nature. To each other. To the stories.
Here is a Brainstorming list of stories yet to be written, inspired by moments from our cross-country road trip.
- Wild horses running past our tent in the middle of the night.
- Forest fires raging through the mountains.
- Ocean waves swelling on the most dangerous beach in the United States.
- Homeless encampments in Portland and Seattle.
- Bison encountering on a morning walk.
- A rattle snake warning.
- A grizzly bear cantering past our car.
- Stars shining brightly then I’ve ever seen them in an Oregon mountain sky.
- Mountain sheep lazily grazing near our car.
- A ground wasp attack.
- Fools hens bathing a dirt path.
- Using moss for toilet paper.
- Night swimming in glacial lakes.