“We’ve called you in here today to discuss the concerns that numerous parents have voiced over the past few weeks,” Scott said calmly to Nadia as he crossed one leg over the other. Nadia glanced at Scott, the head of Trinity Lincoln School, and then looked at the other members of the board in front of her. They were all coincidentally white, leaving Nadia as the sole, brown-skinned person in the room. Nadia couldn’t help but notice that her colleagues all somehow looked like someone jammed a pole right up each of their asses and they couldn’t quite get comfortable. She knew why she was called in here today. But she didn’t know why they needed six members of the faculty to speak to her about it. She felt like she was on trial for murder, not a teacher speaking to her supposed associates.
“Concerns?” Nadia asked innocently, deciding to take the naïve approach. She knew damned well that there were parents complaining about her. But that wasn’t her problem, it was theirs. If parents didn’t want their teenagers to read books about real-life issues, then they should lock them in their houses and home school them.
“Yes…concerns,” Scott said as he cleared his throat and then uncrossed and re-crossed his legs again. Nadia wondered if he had to pee. Why else would he be doing so much crossing and uncrossing? She waited for Scott to continue; this was his meeting, not hers, and she was happy to answer any questions he had. He just needed to ask her one. Nadia leaned back and crossed her arms in front of her instinctively as she felt fourteen eyes burn into her soul.
“Uh huh…” she responded, waiting for him to elaborate.
Scott cleared his throat. “Well, it looks as though you selected a novel for your eleventh-grade honors class that was not on the list I gave you.”
“Uh huh…” she said, waiting for Scott to grow a pair of balls and say what he wanted to say to her.
“Annnnd…the novel you selected is quite controversial and offensive. Many parents were upset when they found out that their children were reading a book with such contentious topics.”
“What did the parents find contentious about the novel?” Nadia asked, already knowing what the parents had been saying.
“Well,” Scott took off his glass and rubbed his eyes. “They are saying that there is foul language. And murder. That all seems very inappropriate for children to be reading.”
Nadia fought the urge to roll her eyes. After two years of teaching the syllabus at this hoity toity private school, she had decided to toss in her own pick this year, The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas.
“And Macbeth and Crime and Punishment as well as all of the other novels on your list don’t have foul language or murder?” she asked matter-of-factly. She looked from Scott to her colleagues all staring at her stoically and continued, “It’s not as if I picked out this book for second graders. These are seventeen-year-olds. Practically adults.”
“Right and that’s all fine and dandy. But we have a process at Trinity Lincoln. All novels must be approved by the board to prevent any upset. And this is the exact reason we do this. Because look what happened? There is upset,” Scott said as he uncrossed and recrossed his legs again.
Nadia felt her face begin to flush with anger. Two years ago, when she had applied to this 85% white school with tuition that is thirty thousand dollars a year, she had her doubts. Would she face racism being one of the only people of color on the staff? Would she be able to have real-life and in-depth conversations with her students whose only experiences in life were going to their summer getaways in Nantucket and country clubs? But after her first-year teaching, she had tossed out all her concerns and taught the students the best way she knew how. And the first year had been okay. It had been more than okay; she had felt pretty good about it. But she felt the novel selection the school had was old and stale. The students needed to read contemporary books about real world issues. After she had read, The Hate You Give, she decided her students had to read it and she naively thought the staff would have been progressive enough to agree with her.
“Have you read it?” she asked Scott and then turned her eyes to the other faculty in front of her. “Have any of you read it?” Scott looked over at the women and men sitting in their chairs uncomfortably, waiting for someone to speak up.
“I started to, but couldn’t get past the slang,” Mary, the AP Science teacher, spoke up.
“Slang?” Nadia asked in astonishment. “It’s dialect. No different than the dialect in Huckleberry Finn.”
“It seemed like it was doing a lot of white blame on black issues,” Mary blurted out, her face turning beet red. Nadia tilted her head in confusion and horror.
“Sorry, African American issues,” Mary corrected herself, her face almost purple now.
“The novel examines the way society uses stereotypes of black people to justify violence and racism against them. These stereotypes protect white communities, such as the school in the novel which is not much different from our school quite frankly,” Nadia began. “It helps our students to reflect upon systemic racism.”
“We don’t have an issue with racism at our school,” Scott said. “We have some African American Students. We celebrate Martin Luther King Day.”
Nadia squeezed her palms together, now sweaty. “Scott, let’s be real here. What’s the issue? These kids play video games that have prostitutes and murder. They watch movies and TV shows with drugs and sex. In all honesty, probably some of them are DOING drugs and having sex. I can’t see the harm in allowing some white kids to read a novel about systemic racism.”
“The parents feel differently, Ms. Nelson,” Scott addressed Nadia formally, never a good sign. “We are going to need you to write a letter of apology to the students and families and unfortunately you will be on suspended leave until the summer in order for this incident to die down. We can’t have this leaking into the community that this is what we are teaching our students. Especially when we are getting incoming Freshman applications for the Fall.”
Nadia stared at Scott in disbelief. Letter of apology? Suspended leave? For teaching a novel about racism? A best-selling novel at that? One that teenagers all over the United States are reading and discussing? When Nadia had chosen that novel, she had hoped that maybe she, a brown skinned girl from humble beginnings, could teach the white privileged students at Trinity Lincoln literature. Real literature, not just the ancient books she was told to teach. And maybe, even teach them some humanity. But she realized that maybe she had hoped too much. Maybe Trinity Lincoln wasn’t ready to get out of their square box.
“Suspension isn’t necessary,” Nadia said as she rose from her chair and pushed it in, refusing to allow the group of cowards in front of her to waste any more of her time. “I’ll be resigning today,” she said as she picked up her purse and put the strap over her shoulder. She turned and walked out of the door and before she closed it behind her she said, “You should be hearing from my lawyer soon.” She slammed the door behind her and left Trinity Lincoln School for a more hopeful future somewhere else.