Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Letter From Imprisoned Minds

During my 33 years of teaching, many moments in the classroom stand out but one incident is near the top of the list. It happened in a section of my English 1A course when I assigned my students to read and discuss Martin Luther King's brilliant essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

The letter was written in 1963 after King was arrested during a sit-in at a Birmingham diner in response to an article posted by eight of King's "fellow clergyman" in essence withdrawing their support of him because his actions though peaceful and "non-violent" precipitate viloence. The piece, scribbled on the backs of napkins would go on to be reprinted in hundreds of anthologies.

 While not an easy piece, I would have settled with my students grasping 50% of it, though getting them to read in general was a formidable challenge. I had set aside 3 periods for a what I hoped would be a detailed analysis of the central premises in the letter.

I had envisioned a lively discussion with strong divisions among the students. What I got was something I had not prepared for, nor could have prepared for in any teacher training program.

I usually began the discussions by asking for general reactions to the reading. Good, bad, like, dislike. When no hands showed, I usually moved on to specific sections of each reading, quoting assertions by the writer then asking for specific responses to each. The essays in all the readers had enumerated paragraphs, making analysis of specific points easier to address.

"Class in paragraphs 25-26, the writer claims such and such is so. Do you agree? Disagree? After long intense silences, with students staring at the floor or the ceiling, at their books, or at one another waiting for some brave soul to raise a hand, they panicked when they began to fear I might call on one of them! This day, I was spared the indignity when one older White lady raised her hand.

Unlike most of the 18-21 year olds in my classes, she was about 60 I guessed. I looked forward to the contributions of her wisdom and experience to our discussion of King's letter.

"I think this essay is a bunch of crap", she asserted defiantly. I was stunned. The students were stunned. I looked around the room hoping someone would challenge or even agree with her. Nothing. Caught off guard I had to think on my feet. "What do I say now?" I froze. My reputation as a teacher was on the line! Finally, it came to me.

"Exactly what part of King's essay is crap?" I asked with surgical skill. "All of it", she countered. "Everyone knows King hates White People and says what he says only for the love of his Negro race." Then, I saw it. My opening. And I prepared my masterful assault. "Could you discuss one specific point in the essay where King says something you disagree with?" "Well", she hesitated "all of it!" "No, no that's not what I'm asking. I am asking you to point to one specific paragraph number, one specific point he makes in one specific paragraph which is as you say crap?"

I had her. She hemmed, she hawed, she shifted her weight from one side of the desk to the other like a fish who had just been pulled on to dry land, hooked and floundering on the ground. I stood defiantly in front of her desk, eyes glued on hers. She looked away. The silence in the room was stifling.  And then it came.

"Uh, I didn't read it." I looked at the others, and they squirmed like unearthed earthworms. I knew it. None of them had read the essay except me, their teacher! As the period mercifully ended, I put the topping on the cake. I was offended. I was angry. Not at the lady necessarily but at each and every student in that room who had let me, their teacher, and that poor lady languish alone on the hot pavement of that confrontation.

"Today's, real lesson class is that I am absolutely apalled ed by the silence of each and every one of you. Not one single student in this class had the balls to say, 'Yeah, she's absolutely right, this essay is a bunch of crap' or to challenge her and stand up for even one of King's arguments", I said to them like a matador, thrusting the Sabre to the hilt. 

We all, students and teacher, left the room with our heads bowed.

In paragraph 26, Dr. King writes "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the the good people." Do you agree or disagree?

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