Woodbury High School teachers and students were prominently featured Sunday in a CBS “60 Minutes” piece examining the use of the N-word in Mark Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
A national debate emerged in recent months when a publisher in Alabama said he’s eliminating all N-word references in a reprint the book. It’s now in the public domain, so he doesn’t need permission to reprint or make changes.
That led “60 Minutes” to wonder how teachers and students dealt with the N-word while studying the book.
Woodbury English teachers Karen Morrill and Nora Wise gave the show two perspectives: Wise speaks the word aloud when teaching the book; Morrill does not.
The show’s producers locked onto the Woodbury angle after Morrill wrote a commentary for MPR in January about how she self-censors when teaching the book to her students. (Morrill and Wise recently realized that both had written letters to the editor on the issue in 2007, and both of their letters had been published on the same day in the Star Tribune.)
Feedback on the “60 Minutes” story has been very positive, Woodbury High School Principal Linda Plante said Monday.
“We’ve been hearing very positive things, but it’s been about our teachers’ presentation and the student representation of their positions on the issue, not really on the pros and cons of whether the N-word should be used in the book,” Plante said.
She said the network crew spent 15 hours at the school over several days in February. First, a producer came to the school to interview teachers and students, to see if the story would pan out. Then the whole crew — two producers, reporter Byron Pitts and a photographer, spent parts of two days doing interviews on camera.
Plante sat in on the many hours of interviews with students and heard “a wealth of feelings on both sides of the issue,” including many that didn’t make the final cut.
“There was a strong voice from students that the text should remain as it is, that it’s part of a historical time period and we should not monkey with it or put different words into the author’s mouth,” she said. “But we also heard from students who don’t use the word and don’t want it included in a discussion in the classroom.”
The story has quotes from teachers Wise and Morrill and several students:
“People are scared to talk about race,” Morrill told Pitts.
Morrill told Pitts she is not afraid to talk about race in class.
“But you will not say out loud the N-word?” Pitts asked.
“That’s just such a minor part,” she replied.
“Aren’t you giving the word more power than it deserves by not saying it?” Pitts asked.
“I didn’t give the word its power. It came into my classroom with that power,” she replied.
“I might not always reach and nourish and nurture every single student. But I can certainly do my best not to harm them,” she added.
When Nora Wise says the word, she feels its impact on students is worth it. “It makes sense in this novel to teach it with the controversy. It makes sense to bring up all of the hard emotions. They come with it. It’s not just a classic book. It’s not just the way the words are written, it’s the ideas,” she said.
Eleventh graders Melvin Efesoa, Joseph Jaurdio and Ryan Farrell are confronting the controversial word and their feelings about it.
“I feel that that word is in there for a reason. Twain put the word in there to get our attention. And every time we read it, it does exactly that. It gets our attention,” Farrell told Pitts.
“If you replace that with the word slave, of course people would be less bothered, but I think Twain wants people to be a little bit bothered,” Jaurdio said.
“Melvin, you smiled,” Pitts remarked, while interviewing the students.
“I smiled because like I just kind of think that constant use (of) the N-word, and to me, it feels unnecessary,” Efesoa said.
“Why? What is it about this word?” Pitts asked.
“It reflects on African-American history back then. And like I said, it’s a history that nobody wants to relive,” Efesoa said.
Another student featured was Jeremy Richardson, 17, who was the only black student in Wise’s English class:
“Having the teacher read it out loud to everyone, then everyone’s looking at me like, ‘Oh, well, she just said that. What are you gonna do about it?’ Like I didn’t really have a reaction. I basically ignored the fact.”
“Internally, I just thought about it like ‘This is wrong. Like I don’t think that she should be saying this out loud.’ “
“But why didn’t you say something at that moment, do you think?” Pitts asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t want anyone to see that I was having a problem with her reading the word. That may be it. But I definitely did have a problem with it,” he replied.
Besides giving the Woodbury students and teachers a national forum on the issue, the “60 Minutes” experience was valuable to the school in other ways, Plante said.
“The crew did a wonderful job of coming into the school and being as unobtrusive as you can be with a camera crew in classrooms,” she said.
The student video club followed them around and produced their own show: “60 Seconds on 60 Minutes,” she said.
“It was a real teachable moment having them in the school,” she said. “There were so many different angles having them in the school and the classrooms. And the producers even spoke in the English classes about how they got their jobs.”