Young Adult Lit/Crit

February 23, 2008

Joyce, Crutcher and the N-word

Hey,I spent a little time on Chris Crutcher’s web site and saw a lot that was interesting and a few things to comment on.  First, there’s a whole section called CC Answers the Censors , which has Crutcher’s reactions to arguments against teaching some of his books and short stories in schools.  I didn’t read too much here, because I want to read the books first.  I am eager to go back to it after I’ve done the reading.  One of the stories mentioned is “Telephone Man” from the short story collection Athletic Shorts.  Crutcher describes this story as “a story about a young borderline autistic boy who lives in a home with a racist father.”  First, I thought of Joyce and her seminar topic on autism.  Second, as I read further, I found this explanation of the issue some readers had with the story:

I hate the words Telephone Man uses as much as any of you do.  That’s why I put them in the story.  They are the words of raw racism and they are depicted as such.  The “n” word (and I use that euphemism only because it seems we have lost our capability to speak real truth) is probably the single most vile word in our nation’s historical vocabulary, a sadistic weapon of a word that has been used in this nation’s history like a hammer.  You don’t hide a word like that.  You expose it.  You tell the truth about it.  Unlike the people who are challenging the story, I have confidence in our children’s intellectual ability to understand that. 

We’ve talked in class about “the n-word” in connection to Of Mice and Men, Tyrell, and just last week in our lit circle on Elijah of Buxton (perhaps it came up the lit circle on Flake’s and Myers’ short story collections as well).  Do we avoid it?  I think the answer is clearly and loudly, “NO!”, but then how do we talk about it?  And then, what do we do if someone challenges the way we discuss race, racism, racial epithets, etc?  This train of thought connects with Joyce’s comments on the “Book Lust” post.  She wrote:

As a student (and someday teacher) I’m learning that sometimes I say stupid things.  Sometimes I know they’re stupid the moment they come out of my mouth. How do we manage this sort of “slip up” in a classroom filled with children? Is there a teacher filter we’re awarded with the moment of graduation, something that we swallow that enables us to keep those stupid things in? Or, am I a hopeless romantic: envisioning every day, every word, every moment filled with deep, resonating, wonderful discussions that are curtious, encouraging, and positive? Are these fears reasonable?

What if I say something that pushes a student away, rather than lifts them up? How do I recover from that kind of devastation, and-more importantly-how do I make sure I never say something stupid that jeopardizes the fragile sphere of learning I am trying to promote?

I would like to add: What happens when we are careful and considerate with what we say, when we think we are being clear, but what we say is still misinterpreted? 

I hold on to the belief that we are models of more than how to read and write, and because of this belief, I try to see opportunity in the situations Joyce describes.  If you make a mistake, show students how to take responsibility for mistakes by saying, “I’m sorry.  I made a mistake.  I will try not to make the same mistake twice.  Can you please be understanding and forgive me?”  This shows respect, humility and reminds students that we as teachers and adults are not perfect. 

I know it’s a long post, but what do you think?




  1. I agree with you Sarah. We are human and therefore “saying something stupid” goes w/the territory doesn’t it? We will say (and do) things as teachers that we should and must acknowledge and apologize for.

    I also agree that we cannot avoid tackling toxic words head on as they come up in our work with kids/texts. These moments are valuable opportunities to engage our students in critical work. That’s what Lemry does in STAYING FAT. That’s messy work, as that novel surely shows us, and many teachers will shy away from it. The stronger the classroom community we create the more likely we will be able to have these conversations with our students. KES

    Comment by sunyprof — February 24, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Great post. Sometimes I think the most ‘teachable’ moments happen when we decide not to ignore messy issues. By the way, my e-mail is Contact me any time to discuss the author study.


    Comment by scrollman — February 25, 2008 @ 9:10 am

  3. Sarah,
    I agree with you completely. Of course these kids are very detail-oriented and will pick up on the smallest mistake that we make. An awareness that we are setting a good example is essential, but so is the idea that we are all human and are thus susceptible to make human mistakes. Part of being a role model and setting an ideal example is to be able to admit mistakes and do “damage control” for such situations.

    I noticed an instance of relevance in King Of The Mild Frontier where the Sunday School teacher told Chris that the “mark” that God gave Cain to punish him for murder was dark skin, and that is basically why slavery was justified. I found this scene to be, not only appalling, but upsetting because when Chris was questioning these ideas he was ignored or punished. Obviously his teachers made a significant impression on him to write about them and their behavior so many years later. Just another reason why we need to handle with care- but address these questions head on!


    Comment by Kari — February 25, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  4. Also my email is ! I guess we should get cracking on that author study?

    Comment by Kari — February 25, 2008 @ 10:27 am

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