Natalie Bernstein, former elementary librarian
Getting them hooked first on a remarkable book, Venanda Nelson’s Beyond Mayfield, and then on the Civil Rights-era history the book depicts, Natalie Bernstein finds that elementary school kids can become passionate in their exploration of even the most sensitive of topics. Again and again, they question, probe, learn. And Natalie’s faith in literature as "a means through which we can live our lives as richly and deeply as possible is affirmed."
Getting them hooked first on a remarkable book, Venanda Nelson’s Beyond Mayfield, and then on the Civil Rights-era history the book depicts, Natalie Bernstein finds that elementary school kids can become passionate in their exploration of even the most sensitive of topics. Again and again, they question, probe, learn. And Natalie’s faith in literature as “a means through which we can live our lives as richly and deeply as possible is affirmed.
At Paideia, teaching language arts in the elementary program incorporates many approaches, but central to the middle and upper elementary experience is the literature group. The opportunity to read a complete work of fiction together as a group and discuss it is something students and teachers treasure. What a contrast with the way many of us were taught literature in elementary school, where rather than reading a whole novel, we spent the year working our way through hefty literature textbooks, chosen for all students in the state at a particular grade level. These textbooks were comprised of excerpts and didactic selections, each one followed by a numbingly predictable series of rote questions. The success of the literature year would be judged on whether we “got through” the whole book.
My experience with a literature group last year was one of the most exciting teaching experiences I have ever had. Cecelia Caines asked if I would do a lit group with her class of 8-9 year-olds, and I chose Mayfield Crossing by Vananda Nelson. Ms. Nelson visited Paideia three years ago to talk to children about her work, and I had enjoyed teaching the novel before. Set in 1960, the book follows the events in children’s lives when their small rural school is closed and they must ride a bus to attend a much larger school in another town. They are stunned to realize that some of the students – and teachers – in the new school are hostile to those of the newcomers who are black. The children from Mayfield had never paid attention to race and had enjoyed their neighborhood life, especially baseball, without any awareness of who was black or white. In fact, the author is deliberately vague about the race of the characters, insisting that we get to know them for their personalities long before we know their race. How the children cope with the insinuations, slurs, and attempts to divide their tightly-knit group makes an inspiring tale, which the author told us was in many ways autobiographical.
This time, however, a new situation arose after we completed Mayfield Crossing, which many children told me had become their favorite book. I told the students that Ms. Nelson had written a sequel, Beyond Mayfield, and I had a copy in the library. They were delighted and begged me to do it as a literature group; unfortunately, the book is available only in hardback, and getting copies for every child would be prohibitive. Cecelia and I agreed that I could use the students’ weekly library time to read it aloud. A short book, I estimated that it would take about four or five weeks to finish it. Little did I know.
Reading it aloud (it was the first time I had read the book myself) proved to be a bigger catalyst for discussion that I could ever have imagined. I would look up after a page or two and see children’s faces, bursting to express their outrage, anxious to share some thought. So, I would pause and let them talk, discuss, interrupt and challenge each other. Before we knew it, the period was over, and we’d read only three pages. I would stop to explain Freedom Riders or the NAACP, and then I’d quickly pull books off the library shelves to show photos. Of course, those books would get checked out and children would return with even more things they were eager to discuss. What became clear to me is that children, at 8 and 9, have lots of questions about race, but have already learned that many adults are uncomfortable with the topic. Some parents, hoping for a harmonious future, prefer a colorblind approach; they barely mention race to their children. Understandably, many parents are reluctant to burden a young child with gruesome tales of lynching, beatings, and enslavement. Yet this gentle and quiet book allowed us to explore all of these uncomfortable topics in a setting that was trusting and open.
Children pick up lots of misinformation or create their own theories to fit what they are, and this can be very troubling to them. One student posed his theory that, back then, all white people hated black people and were uniformly out to slaughter them. My goal was to get the children to see racism not as a systematic killing machine but as something more insidious. In the book, when the children from the racially mixed community of Mayfield Crossing move into their new, all-white school, insults mount. In one episode, a teacher announces that her valuable silver pen is missing. The protagonist, Meg, who is black, one day enters the classroom to find the teacher searching her desk. The teacher, startled, says, “You keep a very neat desk, Margaret. You’ll make a good housekeeper someday.” Meg knows that something doesn’t feel right about this compliment, but she can’t figure out what it is. I stopped reading aloud and asked the children what they thought about the remark. Some didn’t see any harm in it and thought that, finally, the teacher was being “nice.” Another child noted, “Well, it would be a good compliment if she was saying Meg could take care of her own house, but maybe not so good if she was saying the Meg could only grow up to clean other people’s homes.” The discussion that ensued about the history of African-Americans and domestic work was troubling, and I laid out a series of sometimes contradictory assertions: (1) there is no dishonor in domestic work, and we all have to do a share of it; (2) there are many more opportunities for African-Americans today than there were in 1960, and (3) there are still people whose careers are limited due to poverty, poor education, and a system that fails too many people.
Then the hard questions would pour out. “Every housekeeper we’ve ever had is African-American. Why?” “Why are black people poorer than white people?” “You said that it is against the law to discriminate in selling homes. But how come when we drive around Atlanta, I can see that there are white neighborhoods and there are black neighborhoods?” “How in the world did all this get started, anyway?” At one moment, I grabbed a marker and made an impromptu graph of high school graduation rates by race, showing the dramatic upward trajectory on the African-American curve and the prediction that the two lines will merge in less that three years (information from The Statistical Abstract of the United states). All the students responded with fists in the air and an enthusiastic “Yes!,” encouraged by the hopefulness in the roughly drawn lines. Then came, inevitably, the hardest question of all, posed by a little girl with a worried face: “Is there still racism today?” Suddenly, a dozen children were tensely awaiting my response.
I carefully answered yes, but with the reassurances that their generation may, with hard work, wipe it out. Once again, I was struck by how many unanswered questions they had. One child had heard about the horrible dragging death of James Byrd in Texas, and we had to talk about it in far more detail that I would have liked. Another child had heard about racial profiling, and we had another lengthy discussion. Throughout all these conversations, I reminded them that they needed to be talking to their parents about race in America, and that I was optimistic for their generation. Grim history and a long legacy of horrifying facts must be tempered with hope for all of us, but especially for 8- and 9-year-olds.
Another central element of Beyond Mayfield focuses on Sam, a young man who has returned to Mayfield troubled by the racism he witnessed during his time in the Navy. Sam volunteers with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, where he is killed in a suspicious car accident. The children were silent and teary as I read these passages. The question, “White people all hated black people back then, didn’t they?” had come up in various forms early on in our reading, but by the time the playful and loving Sam, who was white, is killed, the students realized that total racial divide was never the case: they understood that there were some white people filled with hatred; many white who were oblivious, cowardly, or passive; and a brave few who took action at great risk. That led to questions about risk-taking from two girls in the class who had watched Selma, Lord, Selma on television. They recounted how children as young as themselves had been placed in the front of many civil rights marches. Did they think the parents were exploiting those young children? Did those children know what risks they were taking?
Suddenly, these two African-American girls were leading the discussion and posing hard questions. Their knowledge of history was much more extensive than those of the white children, and at this young age, that history had to have come from home. The group looked to them in awe. And again, to help answer the hard questions, I could pull off the library shelves some first hand accounts written by those children at the head of the marches and read aloud how they felt.
One issue in Beyond Mayfield deals with building bomb shelters, and one infuriating character insists that only certain kinds of people would be worth saving if the Russians dropped the Big One. After I rapidly summarized the Cold War and its incumbent fears, we embarked on a highly philosophical discussion of who in society is most valuable and worth being saved. Although race figures into that question in the book, the Paideia students eventually concluded that how a society decides who gets into the bomb shelter, whether actual or metaphorical, is a real test of how decent and just a society is. They even questioned the quality of life one might have if one survived a nuclear holocaust. I would look up occasionally and remind myself in disbelieve that these were 9-year-olds debating these age-old questions.
And yet despite the sophistication of these discussions, young children still think magically. Reading this book during the presidential election, we naturally fell into lengthy conversations about voting rights, literacy tests (again, handy examples in library books!), and intimidation at the polls. After some hard questions once again - “Do you think that people tried to keep African-Americans from voting in this (2000) election?” – I was asked a question that reminded me of how young some of these children are. “Why,” asked a young white boy slowly, “didn’t the black people just paint their skin white so that they didn’t have to put up with all that awful stuff?” The three African-American children in the group began to guffaw, but I quickly shushed them and indicated that all sincere questions are welcome. This child wanted a fast, magical solution to end suffering, and he was disturbed by that suffering, yet his own question could have been interpreted as racist. As I explained that the problem lay not in skin color but in the minds of people who had been raised to hate, visible relief spread over this child’s face and he quickly agreed that the real and lasting solution was to change the hearts of racists.
One day I entered the room with a section of the Sunday newspaper and opened the meeting with the question, “Can turning off a light switch make a person a racist?” I then read to them the story of Charlene Hunter as she integrated the University of Georgia. On her first night in the dormitory, all the other women turned off their own lights so that her window would be a lighted, easy target for brick-throwers outside. The children were shocked to hear about her experiences, exclaiming, “She’s just like Ruby Bridges!” and then, ultimately, delighted to hear that Charlene Hunter-Gault is now part of the Board of Trustees and helps make policy at the school. Indeed, the incredible confluence of current events in Georgia made all of us realize that 1960 was not so very long ago, despite my worry that it might seem as distance as the Civil War to these children. (I’ve hear children in the library confuse “Civil Rights” and “Civil War.”) During the course of reading Beyond Mayfield, the Georgia flag debate came to a head, and I asked the students to continue our discussion about the flag with their parents. A few weeks later, I was able to bring in the morning paper announcing that a new flag had been adopted. Likewise, the subject of the Birmingham church bombing had come up several times during our discussions of race and the 1960’s; in another amazingly timed news event, the newspaper provided the story that one of the bombers had been put on trial and convicted. Our discussions ranged far and wide, going back to the beginnings of slavery, exploring the issue of reparations for slavery, touching on the Holocaust or the persecution of homosexuals in America, but always tapping into the growing sense of justice and fairness that informs these young children’s moral development.
Usually, a literature group has a particular structure. Children read an assigned number of pages by a certain day, and then occasionally take a brief quiz or do other activities to help evaluate their comprehension. The teacher then leads a discussion, pointing out important or difficult passages, and sits back in enjoyment as the students talk, often not just about the book, but how it relates to their own experiences. By following such a literature group with a read-aloud, our discussion was more spontaneous, wide-ranging, and substantive than any I have ever had with children. Spontaneity was key; they could ask questions immediately about confusing passages, rather than skip them and never return to them. The relief of being able to talk as long as they needed to about issues that troubled them was palpable, and my concern that we only had one copy of the book evaporated. I spent time wondering how schools who have a standardized curriculum with a prescribed literature textbook, or who don’t have the luxury of devoting as much time as needed to a book, can get to the true heart of any subject. We moved seamlessly among literature, history, and current events. The four weeks I had allotted quickly turned into eleven. In these eleven weeks, I witnessed learning at its deepest level, where young minds grappled with the hardest issues our society faces. I was forced to tackle questions that made me decidedly uncomfortable, and I grew as a teacher as I watched these children plunge ahead. My faith in literature as a means through which we can live our lives as deeply and richly as possible was affirmed by a small, little-known children’s book and the Paideia children who explored it with curiosity, outrage, and exquisite insight.
Excerpt from Beyond Mayfield by Vananda Micheaux Nelson
(From the voice of the narrator, 9-year-old Meg)
The phone rang and Mama went to answer it. While she was gone, I opened the paper.
“National Guard Protects Negroes from Mob,” the headline said. It was only a week after the bus burning. I held my breath a second, then saw that this was in Alabama again, not where Sam was. I was glad, but I understood why Mama was upset.
The article said that while the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking at a big church meeting, a mob of over five hundred people surrounded the building and started pushing cars over, breaking windows, and throwing fire bombs. The people inside were afraid the church might catch on fire. President Kennedy had to send in the National Guard and U.S. Marshals to get the mob to leave. Dr. King and the other people inside the church couldn’t get out until four o’clock in the morning.
“Why didn’t they want Reverend King to talk at that church meeting?” I asked Mama, when she came back.
Mama sighed and sat down in a kitchen chair. “Because he is talking about change, and the people who are against him like things the way they are. Dr. King and other people want Negroes to have more rights.”
“Like the Freedom Riders?”
“Yes, like them, and like Sam.”