It was the first day back from winter break. As the first period bell rang, we begrudgingly sidled into Ms. Nitkin’s 11th grade double-period American Studies class. Nitkin was a feisty old Jewish lesbian from Cheshire, who had long since cemented her reputation as both the hardest and greatest teacher at the school. She didn’t take any bullshit (as she so eloquently told me when she handed back my very first essay with a big fat “D” sprawled across the page), but she made her teaching worthwhile, and always pushed you to your very best. She had given us the week between Christmas and New Years to read Huckleberry Finn, by native Nutmegger Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. Being assigned an entire novel to read over winter break always seemed cruel and unfair, but we did as we were told, and came to that first period class ready to discuss the book and bear Nitkin’s sardonic, witty wrath.
Once we’d all settled down — a good five minutes after the late bell rang — Ms. Nitkin stood up from her desk, hardly taller than she was when sitting down, and made her first declaration to the class: “Nigger. There, I said. Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you all read Huck Finn,” and proceeded with her usual four-question verbal quiz, just to make sure we actually read the book, instead of skimming SparkNotes.
After the quiz, Ms. Nitkin told us a bit of the history of the book’s censorship, as a means of launching us off into a class discussion. Almost immediately, and with much less arguing and shouting than was typically expected of us, the class came to several unanimous decisions: yes, the book uses the word “Nigger,” no, it’s not a very nice word to use, and yes, it was still historically accurate. This set us off on our debate — was Jim the true hero of the book, despite the fact that he was a “nigger?”
The lone black girl in the class — technically Jamaican-American, not African — raised her hand for the first time. Ms. Nitkin called on her to speak, and with seething vitriol she declared her disgust for that word and the shame it brought upon her people. Once again, the rest of the class agreed, and genuinely sympathized as best we could.
But she carried on, spewing vile about how terrible it was for Jim to be called such a thing. Still we all continued to agree, just as we had at the start of the class. She insulted Mark Twain’s worth as an author, and the educational and historical value of the book because of this. Ms. Nitkin tried several times to change the topic, re-iterating that, although the rest of us were white, we were still on her side.
The girl continued her rant, or argument, or declaration, or whatever else it may have been, well into the middle of the second period of the class, interfering with the instructional time allotted to another teacher. The next day, Ms. Nitkin brought in an entirely new book for us to read — this time with only three days to do it. In her final year as a teacher before retirement, Ms. Nitkin changed her curriculum for the first and only time, in effort to satiate the outraged student.
I can’t remember anything about that book we read next, but I sure as hell remember Huck Finn.