Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Teacher drops the n-bomb in class...

Yesterday, I came across a news article about a teacher from Newport News, Virginia who is on paid administrative leave because she used the word "nigger" in her classroom.  On the surface, it sounds like the just action was taken, right?  I mean, how dare a teacher drop the n-bomb in school.  It's not the 1950s!

Not so fast.

Lynne Pierce, a 40 year veteran of teaching, is a social studies teacher at Heritage High School in Newport News, Virginia.  On Friday, September 18, Ms. Pierce was explaining to her advanced placement US History students why some people think the Washington Redskins ought to change the name of their team.  Some of the students were having some trouble grasping the concept of the term "Redskins" being racially offensive.  So, Ms. Pierce said something along the lines of, "How would you feel if we had a team called the Newport News Niggers?"  She used the word once and made it clear that it was not to be used again in her class.

A student was offended and complained to authorities.  Ms. Pierce sat at home for a week while her lessons were taught by substitutes.  As of yesterday, she is back at school.

Heritage High School's student body is predominantly composed of black students.  Ms. Pierce, who is a white woman, is apparently much beloved by many of her students, past and present.  A petition circulated online to get her back to class.  Meanwhile, controversy is still brewing.

We had a pretty good discussion about this on my Facebook wall yesterday.  Only one person was offended and I have a feeling that she commented without reading the article.  She asked how I would feel if the teacher had used the words "fuck" or "cocksucker" in class.  My response was that if the words were being used in an educational context-- say if they were quoted from a novel or something-- I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Aside from that, these kids are 16 or 17 years old and, as they are taking AP classes, probably intend to go to college at some point.  In college, it's very possible that they will run into objectionable language in the course of their studies.  They'd probably ought to get used to it.  I was an English major as an undergrad and I took courses in women's literature and African American literature.  Both classes included slave narratives and other books that included "racist" language.  While I'm not a fan of derogatory language intended to hurt people, I do think that history shouldn't be whitewashed.  When those books were written, that was the language used.  An accurate look at history is the best way to learn not to make the same mistakes in the future.  You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

I'm probably not the best person to ask that question to, anyway, because when it comes to language, I tend to be pretty liberal.  I think it makes sense to pay close attention to the context of how a word is used.  Yes, it's true that yesterday I made fun of Pat Boone singing about Santa Claus needing to go on a diet.  I didn't say he couldn't sing that song because it was offensive; I said it was a stupid song that probably didn't sell well.  And given that Pat's daughter had an eating disorder that threatened her life, I thought it was a strange choice for him to sing it.  

I am heartened to read that many people think Ms. Pierce is "brilliant" and a great teacher.  I'm glad she's back at school.  I hope people will learn from this incident.  It's yet another example of zero tolerance gone amok and common sense gone astray.

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