She only used the word once, maybe twice, but the principal called her in the next day and sent her home on paid leave. She was shocked and scared and spent the whole afternoon huddled on the couch with her dog, crying. How could she have been so stupid?
But she wasn’t stupid, and eventually she calmed down and began thinking about what happened and what the future might hold. It wasn’t stupid, but it was a serious lapse of judgment. She knew better than to use that word in class, but she allowed herself to utter it because it was one of those teachable moments where you’re bold, to drive a lesson home. And she thought she had earned the right with these kids to use that word, just once (maybe twice). A white woman in an all-black school, she had endured their hostility and disrespect but kept showing up, wouldn’t be driven away. Every day was a battle but lately she had begun to win. There were fewer and fewer petty arguments; in-your-face displays of disobedience and contempt had practically ceased. The class had settled down and become almost a normal class, far better than her first year. She thought most of the seniors in that class were on her side. But not Andrew.
It was Tuesday and they were halfway through a routine class. They had been working for a week now on recognizing bias in websites. Today they were exploring fact-checking. She had spent the first half of class explaining what a “fact” was and how you recognize a questionable one. This was easy with sites that were offensive, and together they fact-checked a Red State article on Trump’s immigration policy. But then she used an article from The Root on the same issue, and it was hard convincing the students that some of the facts cited by The Root needed to be checked as well. But she skillfully probed and questioned them, all the while managing to extinguish a dozen little brush fires caused by boredom and inattention: Sofia on her cell phone, Damien and Caleb having a whispered conversation about who knows what. Anthony with his ear pods. The usual distractions. Somehow she got them to agree there was bias on The Root as well. Then she put a list of ten articles on the screen and had them spend the rest of class fact-checking any five of them while she circulated and helped them. A normal, well-designed class. What could go wrong?
Brandon and Trinity got into it. It was Trinity who snarled, so the entire class could hear: “N---, get your face out of my grill! Mind your own damn business!” Denise was sure that’s what Trinity said, except for the “grill” part. She couldn’t always understand everything they said; they spoke so fast sometimes and used slang that constantly changed. Sometimes she only got about 80% of it. Denise had learned to live within this gauze that draped her and cut her off. She made fun of herself; she wanted her students to know she admired their fluency and wanted to learn their language. So it was not unusual for her to talk about things they said and how they said them.
The “n” word, however, grinded on her; she heard it all the time; it was ugly to her; she was tired of it. Some devil tempted her to go after it.
“That’s enough Trinity. You know I don’t like it when you use that language in my class.”
“Well tell him to get out of my face and leave me alone.”
“Brandon, leave her alone. You can see she’s had enough. Just sit back and relax.”
Brandon got a few final shots in, under his breath, but sat back, disengaged.
Denise thought for a few seconds. If only she had thought for a few more.
“Listen everybody. You know I don’t like that kind of language. Can I please explain why? When you’re alone together you can use any language you want. But when you’re in a public place, and this classroom is a public place, you cannot use that word. That word is ugly and offensive to white people too. Believe me. And when you call someone a “nigger” you are branding yourself as an ugly and offensive person, to white people. It may not get you fired but it will not get you promoted. Believe me on this.”
That was the gist of what she said. She was pretty sure she only used the word one time. When she said it, she was a little shocked at herself, that she, a white woman, would use that word in a room full of black people. But she wanted her advice to have impact; she wanted them to understand, and be successful. Maybe she used the word again but she honestly didn’t think she did. In any case, the class settled down and no one challenged her. Her point seemed to sink in.
It surely sank in to Andrew, who went home and told his parents. She wondered what he said, how he told them. Because they came in mad as hell.
Andrew. He had always frightened her, from the moment he became a distinct person. He had always been cold and angry and capable of hurting her in one way or another, if she let him. He was tall and muscular and she sensed violence in his body. He ignored and defied her whenever she was forced to address him, as she frequently did, because he insisted on doing things she expressly forbade in her classroom: wearing sunglasses or hoodies, talking on the phone, swearing, fighting. Big, obviously disruptive and unacceptable things. She let the little stuff go--she had to--but there were red lines she had to draw or else she would have no respect in the classroom at all.
He crossed her red lines frequently. They were always butting heads, and it scared her and wore her down but she never backed away. Nearly every week she kicked him out of class. The administrators were no help, the counselor was no help. She was on her own to face his sneer and defiance and she had no tools, no leverage, except to stand up to him and force him to leave. She had never had a student like this before and she couldn’t understand him and she was afraid of him.
He knew she was. He was not afraid of her, an old white woman who showed up in his school and thought she had a right to be there. Teaching this stupid class, Computer Literacy, that he didn’t need to take, because he knew all this stuff. Something about her just maddened him. Her fat soft body. The way she dressed. The way she barked at him. He didn’t know or like any white people, and he didn’t like her. No one did. They put up with her in class, but no one had anything nice to say about her. Some of the girls thought she was OK but they kept their mouths shut because the judgment was in on her. She was just biding time here. Andrew was not going to put up with her shit.
So when she dropped the “N” bomb Andrew was enraged; who the fuck did she think she was, talking like that? Thinking she could tell them what they could and couldn’t say? His parents knew all about his frequent run-ins with Ms. Bryant. They had been called half a dozen times when he was sitting in the AP’s office; they had had it with Ms. Bryant. The woman was rude; the woman did not try to understand their son; the woman was just trying to beat him down. When Andrew told them what she had said, his dad slammed his fist down on the table; his mom said, “Good God. What is wrong with that woman?” And they both took off work the next morning and were waiting outside the principal’s office when he finally showed up.
Denise had never seen them. She had talked with the mother on the phone, but the woman was curt, unapologetic, said her son would do what her son would do. Very well, Denise thought, I will do what I will do. Now they had played their hand, without calling her, without getting Denise’s side of the story, and Denise thought she was going to lose her job.
The principal did not have her back. “Did I have to tell you that you can’t use that kind of language in the classroom? What were you thinking?”
“John, I only used the word once. I was trying to make a point. I was trying to tell them that you can’t use that word around white people. They won’t respect you”.
“They won’t respect you? You think you have to teach these kids about white people not respecting them?”
“John, you don’t understand.”
“Oh I understand. Believe me. This isn’t the first time I’ve been around a white person who thinks they can use that word and teach me something.”
“No!” Denise was stunned at how rapidly the conversation deteriorated, how completely misunderstood she was. “That’s not how it was!”
“They say you used the word more than once, and you seemed to enjoy saying it.”
“John, I was trying to teach them something. I was trying to do my job.”
“Well you’re not going to do it today. I’m sending you home while we try to figure this thing out.”
But there was no fixing it. By the time they got around to calling students in and hearing their versions of what had happened, the narrative was set. Andrew, after all, was a wide receiver and a point guard and on his way to Wichita State; he had plenty of friends who nodded along when he told them what his parents said and what they had done. Even the girls who were acing the class were not willing to go too far out on a limb for Ms. Bryant. “I don’t think she understood what she was saying,” Aliyah told them. “I think she was trying to teach us a lesson or something. But I know a lot of the students were offended.” That was the strongest defense any student would offer.
She wasn’t a good fit for the school, the Board decided. They asked for her resignation. Within a week the incident was over and she was out of there.
Her friends and family rallied around her, agreed it was a massive injustice, the most destructive kind of political correctness. It was racist all right, but she wasn’t the racist; the school, the principal, the kids were the racists. She was just trying to prepare them to survive in a white power culture, and for the crime of being a conscientious teacher she had been thrown out the door. Her best friend Donna summed it up.
“I can’t think of anything more ironic. You didn’t want them to be fired or demoted from some job for using the “n” word. And here you are, fired from your job for using the “n” word. It would almost be laughable if it wasn’t happening to you, the best teacher in the world. Denise, honey, I feel so sorry for you. This is so wrong.” Lots of people told her she should sue.
Denise thought about that. She felt rage; she felt she had been deeply wronged and she wanted justice, but she did not go to a lawyer. She did not want to fight to get back in that school, where she was hated. That school had worn her out--the resentment and scorn she triggered just because she was white, and female, exhausted her. Sure, there were happy times, lots of smiling kids, lots of wonderful teachable moments, and she took pride in her professionalism and comfort in the belief that she was doing right by those kids, teaching them things they needed to learn. But they told her she wasn’t a good fit, and that was certainly true. She didn’t want to go back to that school.
As for financial compensation, the district was underfunded, broke. She wasn’t going to get much out of them even if she won in court, and how long would that take? The district lawyer had carefully explained to her the terms of the contract she had “violated.” They had asked for her resignation because they were not punitive. They were prepared for a lawsuit; they would drag it out forever, and maybe in five years cough up $50,000, half of which would go to her lawyer. In the meantime, she had to make a living. She would need a decent letter of recommendation, and a good reference from the principal.
One other thing held her back from going after them, and that was the thought that she was guilty.
As she thought about that word, she realized she had used it often enough, in her head. Not routinely, not willfully, but it sprang up in her mind and heart sometimes when a black person did something that directly violated her, when a black person attacked her. You n---! She would think that, sometimes. Last year, probably the low point of last year but who knows, there were so many, she came across Letitia Robinson painting her nails in class. She had long fake nails, and she was painting them right in class.
“Letitia, put that nail polish away and get to work on the assignment I just gave you.”
Letitia ignored her, wouldn’t even look up. She was painting her cuticle and had to concentrate.
“Letitia, I’m talking to you. Put that nail polish away and get to work.”
“No I won’t.” She looked up at her. “I’m going to finish my nails.’
“You will not finish your nails.”
Letitia said nothing and continued painting her nails. Everyone in class had stopped working and was watching this show. It was much more interesting than calculating interest rates.
Denise’s back was up against the wall of the classroom gaze.
“OK, Letitia, if you want to paint your nails maybe you should just go down to Mr. Lott’s office and paint them there.” Letitia said nothing but she stopped painting her nails. She did not put the polish away, however. She held the brush in her hand and spread her fingers before her as if she was carefully examining her long purple nails to see if there was a spot she had missed. But her eyes were angry.
“You heard me, Letitia. Go to the office.”
At that she stood up, suddenly and violently, knocking the bottle of nail polish over and spilling a little pool of purple blood across the desktop. “Don’t you tell me what to do!” she screamed. “You stupid old bitch! Don’t you tell me what to do!” The classroom erupted in hoots and laughter.
Denise was so shocked and frightened that she backed away and stared in horror at this wild girl. She was wounded to her core, and speechless. She went to her desk and called campus security, and they came and took Letitia away, and her desk too.
But afterwards, as she struggled to calm down, as she went over in her head every interaction with Letitia she could remember, trying to think of what she had done to deserve such a violent and abusive attack, when she was clearly within her rights as a teacher, she kept thinking, You bitch, you little n--- bitch! How dare you! You little n--- bitch! And it took her a long time to settle down and flush those thoughts out of her mind.
And Andrew--yes, she had called Andrew that, in her mind, because he was so abusive to her, so angry and disrespectful, and all she was trying to do was maintain an orderly classroom. Instead, he kept his hoodie on, even pulled it close and tied it, right in front of her. He called her a bitch. He said “Fuck you!” right in class. They had done nothing but fight, and all she was trying to do was teach them how to use the internet effectively. She had called him that, in her mind. She had.
She couldn’t understand why that word came into her mind at all, even in moments of great stress, when she felt attacked. Why not You bastard! or You motherfucker! or You cunt! or a hundred other words that would perfectly communicate the ugliness she felt? She compared it with the word “faggot.” Now there was a word she never used and could honestly never imagine herself using, even in her head, even if some gay person was being absolutely vile to her, which of couse they never were. Gay people were always funny and sweet to her. But say one of them did something dreadful to her. Would she think, You faggot! She wouldn’t. She might say You queen! or You queer! But she wouldn’t say faggot. Lots of people would. But not decent people.
But here she was, a decent person, and she had used the “n” word, in her mind. She was guilty. She didn’t know how or why or what she could do about it. She just knew she wasn’t going to sue.
Still, she had to make a living, so a month later she called the principal and asked to meet with him and he agreed, as long as the district lawyer was present and the meeting was recorded. They were afraid of a lawsuit.
She didn’t waste any time. “I want a good letter of recommendation from you, John, and I want to use you as a reference, and when they call you’re going to tell them I’m a good, hard-working teacher. Because I am. You’re going to tell them I resigned for personal reasons.”
The lawyer immediately spoke up. “For the record, I want to remind you that we asked for your resignation because you violated the terms of your contract. If John agrees to write such a letter I will personally review it to ensure that it does not contradict the official record.”
“You can review it, but it will say what I want it to say. We can negotiate that.” She turned her attention to the principal. “I want you to tell the truth in that letter. Don’t say the kids loved me because they didn’t. Don’t say I was popular with the staff because I wasn’t. Say that I came to work every day. Say that I prepared my lessons. Say that my lessons were skillful and demonstrated mastery of my subject matter. All that is true, John, and you know it.”
“I know it,” John said.
“You don’t have to say I was perfect, because I wasn’t.”
“You were good enough, Denise. Everyone regrets what happened.”
“I wasn’t good enough. Don’t say that. But you don’t have to be perfect to be treated with respect, and that’s what I want from you. And from you.” She said that to the lawyer, with fire in her eyes.
She got her letter. She moved on.
Andrew graduated four years later from Wichita State, with a degree in Computer Science. He wanted to play football and basketball and tried walking on; he was cut the first week from the basketball team, but the football coach gave him a uniform. He sat on the bench though and gave it up in the fall, which was fortunate because his classes were difficult and he had to work hard to pass.
At Wichita State he met a lot of white people and he came to feel comfortable around them and to like some of them. A few white guys, who listened to rap and thought they were bonding with their black friends when they used the “n” word, didn’t last long. He canceled them. But Steve never did. Steve’s eyes would get all serious and flick to Andrew when he heard a white boy use the word; he knew Andrew was done with that boy. He never challenged Andrew or defended the guy. He let Andrew be Andrew, and he liked Andrew. They became good friends.
Years later they were sitting on Andrew’s couch watching Entertainment Tonight before hitting the bars and Kevin Hart came on, blasting Bill Maher for using the “n word” on his show. They watched in silence, and when the clip was over Andrew turned off the TV and got up. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
“Hey man,” Steve said. “Can I ask you something?”
“This is hard for me to talk about, even to bring it up, but I don’t understand something.”
“You agree with Kevin Hart, don’t you? Bill Maher never should have used that word.”
“Absolutely I agree.”
“I agree too. But Kevin said he can issue all the apologies he wants, as if it was unforgivable, as if there was no going back. I don’t get that.”
“It’s not unforgivable. That’s not what Kevin said. He forgives him. But there’s no going back. There’s no wiping that out.”
“But you, man. I’ve known you for a long time, and I love you, you know I do. And I’ve seen you absolutely reject white guys who use that word. Good guys. Guys who just made a stupid mistake. You’re done with them. Why is that, man? I’ve never really understood.”
Andrew was quiet for a while, looking around the room. Finally he sighed and said, “You’re not black. You can’t understand so don’t try. It just ignites something in me.”
He thought a little more. “I had a teacher once, a white teacher, who used that word. I got her fired. She crossed a line. It’s always been a line for me. It always will be. You gotta have respect.”