I didn’t know any better. Before I ever read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I taught a chapter called “Momma, The Dentist, and Me.” I was teaching kids who were about as far from avid readers as is possible. Some had diagnosed learning disabilities, others had missed so many classes in elementary school that when they were shuffled along into the next grade (out of pity? apathy? kindness?) the new educators had to re-realize they couldn’t read. Others were lazy. And a few made sure to exhibit obnoxious behavior bordering on abusive so they would be removed from the oppressive classroom environment often enough to allow deep breaths of freedom. But they all loved being read to, so that’s what I did.
The story was perfect on its own. It didn’t need the context of the autobiographical novel that would, months later, punch me in the gut and make me fall in love with writing all over again. Still, its deeper issues benefited from the context of its surrounding chapters.
The students all had risographed handouts, still wet from the machine. They followed along, index fingers pointing and dragging across the purple lines, and I read. It was slow going – “The angel of the candy counter” had to be explained. Excruciating became an impossible spelling word. Penance (Oh! I know that!) was discussed in detail. And that was just the first sentence.
It was when “whitefolks” cropped up that my students started really paying attention, waiting for an explosive climax. Waiting for their teacher’s reaction. They read. They paid attention. They were disappointed. In that first year of untenured high school teaching, I made sure to stick to the storyline, bland from a lack of confident security.
We didn’t deal with going to the back door of the dentist. No one questioned the use of racial epithets; we just talked about a grandmother defending her grandchild. The students never questioned the segregation and cruelty of power; they just accepted it as a tale from back in the day.
We discussed point of view, metaphor, language switching, and character. Part of me was relieved the worst of the racism wasn’t brought up. As an untenured teacher, I was still not clear about the lines of appropriate class discussion. I was afraid to say the wrong thing. But another, more nagging part of me knew I had not done service to the story, to the reality that it still represented in our world.
But I rationalized that the students both read the story and had it read to them. I was gratified that they answered quiz questions correctly about similes and storyline and structure. I smiled when my students said, “That was a cool story, Miss.” At least they read it.
And I’d like to think, I believe I know, that Maya would have forgiven my safe and smooth guidance through her story. And I’d like to think, I believe I know, that she would have appreciated how her poems and essays and stories were taught later in my career.