South Carolina high school English teacher Mary Wood was reprimanded last school year for teaching a lesson on race. She began teaching it again this year.
Mary Wood walked between the desks in her AP English Language and Composition classroom, handing out copies of the book she was already punished once for teaching.
Twenty-six students, all but two of them White, looked down at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a memoir that dissects what it means to be Black in America — and which drew calls for Wood’s firing when she tried to teach it last year in her mostly White, conservative town. Wood crossed to a lectern and placed her hands on either side of a turquoise notebook, open to two pages of bullet points explaining why she wanted to teach Coates’s work.
“That book that you guys have, it deals with racism,” she said on a recent Tuesday. “It’s going to be something with which you’re unfamiliar. That you need to spend time to research to fully understand.”
Wood stared at her class. She tried to make eye contact with every teenager. Anyone, she reminded herself, might be secretly recording her — or planning to report her.
Plus, both teachers believed the book, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is superbly written: a master class in the deployment of rhetorical devices. There was no better way to teach children how to formulate their own arguments, they thought.
“It teaches kids a different perspective, [it] teaches kids how to write well,” Wood said in an interview. And “it’s the right thing to do.”