A “Teachable Moment” for the N-Word?

When Lincoln Brown, a white Illinois teacher, found the N-word in a note passed during his majority African-American sixth grade class, he paused to discuss the slur in detail, even explaining why it hurt him to say it. Midway through the lesson, the school’s principal walked in and Brown wound up suspended without pay.

First of all, isn’t a child learning about the N-word better than him or her simply picking it up from some dummy? I say yes, but I’m not sure we need Teacher Brown’s Federal lawsuit against Principal Gregory Mason and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to get us there. Brown is claiming a violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights, alleging that his 5-day suspension is both unjust and based on an inaccurate depiction of the episode submitted by Principal Mason.

In a “Notice of Pre-disciplinary Hearing,” Mason cited Brown for “using verbally abusive language to or in front of students” and “cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm” in violation of the Chicago Public Schools policy. It’s admittedly pretty heavy language – as if Brown had been caught dancing around a fat kid singing, “Nigga- nigga- nigga- nigga!” (By all accounts this is NOT what happened.)

Mason’s somewhat contradictory full report states that Brown criticized the media’s portrayal of blacks, spoke of Twain’s N-word use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and allowed students to chime in. He even quotes Brown voicing distress that the N-word is still so prevalent in society today and saying it “hurt” him to utter it at all. Then Mason recounts how he left Brown’s classroom for 15 minutes and returned to find that the teacher still hadn’t gone back to his regularly scheduled curriculum.

Though Mason stayed in the room at that point, Brown was allowed to continue without interruption. So, perhaps under the impression that his principal was supportive of what he calls a “teachable moment,” Brown upped the ante and started questioning his kids about the treatment of black vs. white characters in movies, later citing a Southern Poverty Law Center project called “Teaching Tolerance” as his inspiration.

None of this sounds all that terrible. In fact you might wonder – as I did – how deep up Principal Mason’s butt that stick really goes for him to have taken issue with such a reportedly engaging and obviously relevant lesson. After the fact, no less.

Ah, and there’s the rub. What Mason has up his butt is Chicago Public Schools. Even if he was personally uncomfortable with a white teacher repeatedly using the N-word to explain it to a black classroom, it’s unlikely he found the discussion all that unhealthy. It’s far more likely that the lack of notification and ability to help shape the lesson was the issue, especially since Brown veered off the reservation arguably more widely than necessary to make a point to sixth graders.

If, upon confiscating the note, Brown had halted the day’s lesson long enough for a momentary, heartfelt talk on the hurtful nature of the N-word instead of winging a full-blown tough-love lecture, Mason may never have filed a disciplinary report. If the teacher had pulled the two hip-hop lyricists responsible for the note aside at the end of class and given his talk then, a federal case – literally – might not have been made of all of this.

But Mason is the school’s principal. He’s top-of-the-pyramid accountable for protecting the psychological and physical health of every student at his school, and he decided in the end that Brown’s lesson went too far. CPS backed him up, rejecting Brown’s appeal and concluding that he had indeed “engaged in inappropriate discussions with sixth-grade students during instructional time.” But perhaps in deference to the reality of the world our sixth graders are growing up in (or maybe because for the most part the administrators agreed that Brown’s impromptu lesson was a decent one), Brown’s “punishment” was minimal.

That could have – and should have – been the end of the story for everyone involved. Each side had a point, but in the end the principal and the school system opted for the most cautious route, which is ultimately their charge as administrators. And still, nothing in their imposed consequences prohibited Brown from returning to his classroom and resuming his role as the quality teacher he’s known by many to be.

But this only the beginning of the story: Brown has filed his lawsuits and is claiming it would be all but impossible to go back to his job at Murray Language Academy. It’s not the end of the story, in other words, not because of the N-word itself or because racial tensions have flared, but because someone’s sense of entitlement hasn’t been met.

According to Brown, his family has a long history of support for civil rights. His father, Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, met Dr. Martin Luther King and his parents named him after Abraham Lincoln. Brown himself grew up as one of only a handful of white students at Kenwood High School. After becoming an educator himself, Brown chose to teach in schools serving predominantly black children near that “woman’s world of fatherless households,” the infamous Robert Taylor projects.

During a recent press conference, Brown got choked up and said this incident “cannot be part” of who people think he is. I get that: you’ve worked hard to prove who you are. But it seems a stretch to claim that a slap on the wrist in the name of caution could wipe clean your otherwise excellent track record. To me it smacks of, “I’m suing because a school principal’s final word on sixth-grade-appropriate lesson plans trumped my and my family’s righteousness.”

So come on, Brown, take your otherwise inconsequential administrative lumps and get back to your classroom. You know you’re needed there, and you know you do good work. A lot of your students and their parents are on your side – you just need to work a little more closely with your administrators.

By the way, had you confiscated that note and brought it to the attention of Principal Mason, you could have requested up front an hour-long block of instruction on the origins and the insensitivity of the N-word. Not only would you have been more likely to obtain authorization (or been given reasons for why the idea wasn’t such a good one), you also would have had time to prepare a cohesive and age-appropriate lesson and could have avoided falling back on what you yourself admitted was a nontraditional teaching guide. You’ve clearly got a lot to recommend you, but getting preachy in the classroom and playing victim when reprimanded isn’t on the list.

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