One of the most interesting things about being a mother is having the opportunity to revisit the books I read as a kid as an adult with a fresh perspective. Sometimes, it is an unpleasant experience; one in which I realize that a text I enjoyed as a kid has a darker side, as in seeing the treatment of indigenous people in insensitive ways (the Little House series and Peter Pan in particular come to mind.) But other times, I’m brought to tears by the beauty of a book I loved when I was a kid. That is the case with a book we are currently reading via audiobook, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.
I remember so many of the topics salient to this text: family, injustice, racism, the tie to land. It is the story of the Logan family, farmers who are so strongly tied to their 400 acres that the patriarch of the family leaves to work on the railroad rather than selling it to the plantation owner down the street. It is set during the Great Depression when the price of cotton has dipped but the aggression of the KKK runs high. In the foreword to the version we have, Jacqueline Woodson, another phenomenal writer for children, recalls that the reason she was able to become a writer is because Taylor wrote this book. It is that beautiful. As a kid, I fell in love with the Logan family.
I read this book with my class at school and was deeply impacted, particularly by the racial injustice experienced by the characters. When Little Man is indignant about the way the white school bus driver purposely splashes him with mud and he is taunted by the children on the bus, I wanted to be indignant for him. When epithets, including the n-word, are shouted at and about the young characters, I felt my cheeks burn with rage for them.
I felt the same way this time around, but on this reading, the book has a new heroine for me, and she emerges as such in Chapter One. Mrs. Logan, the matriarch, not only helps run a farm and raise a family, but is also a 7th grade teacher. If that weren’t heroic enough, she says and does something that made me love her more, something I didn’t really notice when I read this as a kid.
In the book, Cassie’s teacher is teaching two classes at once on the first day of school: Cassie’s class, but also Little Man’s first grade class. She makes a HUGE deal of “new” books the school has been “gifted.” To the dismay of the children, they see piles of books with worn covers and ratty pages, not fresh, clean books. When the books are distributed, both Cassie and Little Man reject the books when they realize that not only are the books castaways from the white school, but the race of the children is written next to the condition of the books. They are both whipped for this infraction, and Miss Crocker goes to talk to their mother.
While Mrs. Logan acknowledges that the kids should have obeyed their teacher, she also takes a stand when she sees the inside covers of the books that made her children so angry. She pulls out her glue and blank, white paper and pasted over all the inside covers of not only her own children’s books, but every seventh grader’s book as well. When confronted by Miss Crocker for “spoiling” the kids and not letting them know “the way things are,” she retorts: “Maybe so…but they don’t need to learn to accept them, and neither do we.” With this small act of resistance, Mrs. Logan changes the way her entire class will see themselves and their education. Perhaps they do only have access to throwaway books, but it doesn’t mean they need to be reminded of the fact that the state only provides children of color with supplies that are no longer wanted by the white children.
Segregation may be illegal now, but that doesn’t mean injustice and inequality are not present in schools. There are stark differences between the public schools in wealthy communities and those in poverty stricken communities, which are disproportionately attended by children of color. We have not closed that gap in school quality. Not every child has equal access to quality education in our country. My current students are fortunate to attend school in a beautiful, safe building. The students I taught at the start of my career were not, facing violence and disrepair around every corner of the school building.
As teachers, Mrs. Logan’s line should become our motto for the school year. When we see our students, or other students, facing injustice, they need to know they don’t need to accept the way things are. Whether we teach students in a city, rural, or suburban school, we must help them think critically about injustice both in their community and in other communities and we must say to them “this may be the way things are, but we don’t need to accept them.” And then, we must do as Mrs. Logan did with her small act of resistance and take action, even when iris only as local as our own classrooms, in a way that sends the message to our students that WE do not accept the way things are. We have to show them the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be and help them close that gap. Teachers, on many levels, must be activists. Mrs. Logan taught me that today.