When I was working at Presbyterian College, speakers regularly visited the campus on Tuesday morning, talking about this that or the other thing.
During one of those Tuesday morning sessions, the sociologist and evangelist Tony Campolo was the speaker de jour. At one point in his presentation, Campolo told a story about a prostitute and people who “didn’t give a shit” about her situation.
Then he waited the requisite beat before continuing to say what really bothered him was people who were more concerned with the fact he’d just said “shit” than the actual problem he’d been talking about.
I often come back to that idea when I’m teaching literature.
A few years ago I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, and the mother of one of my students was really upset and called to talk to me about the book.
I anticipated her being concerned with the use of the “n” word and the racial issues depicted in the book. Or, maybe she was concerned with the age-appropriateness of sexual issues the book presents.
No. And, uh, no.
She was upset because, during the trial Tom Robinson testifies to what Bob Ewell said to Mayella Ewell, his daughter: “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill you.”
THAT was the issue — the use of the words “goddamn” and “whore.”
My Tony Campolo moment.
Never mind the situation Mayella is in. Never mind Tom Robinson is accused of something he did not do. No. Those weren’t the issues, but these were?
Did I really need to repeat that kind of language in class? (Well, yes, considering that’s exactly what Harper Lee wrote.)
Was it appropriate? (Well, no, it’s never appropriate for a father to look at his daughter and call her a goddamn whore.)
Had I ever considered using WhiteOut over that section and the other swear words in the book. (No. And just for the record, I’ve never considered taking a big old bucket of paint and putting clothes on the figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, either.)
When I teach To Kill a Mockingbird I honor what Harper Lee wrote by reading her words. I do the same when I teach Merchant of Venice or Huckleberry Finn. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable…and I think that’s the point.