I breathed a sigh of relief as we returned to the book and Rosaline, who was on her way to register to vote. Before we began to read, I explained that in the next section and in sections to come, the N-word would be used, and I wanted them to understand my policy around that word. I explained that because of its painful history, I ask students not to say the word when we read aloud. Instead, I have them say N. I also explained that we would naturally never use that word in the classroom at any time or toward anyone. Just as a student continued our read-aloud, I noticed a hand out of the corner of my eye. In my gut, I knew that something was coming. I'd known the student for two years and I knew his penchant for creating chaos, but I asked anyway. "Joe, do you have a question about the book?"
"No, but I have a question about the N-word. Why can black people use it and white people can't?"
Voices exploded from every corner of the room. "Are you a complete idiot for bringing that up now?" "Why are you trying to start something?" "What is wrong with you?"
I silenced the class and, with an inner grimace, thanked Joe for asking such a difficult question. What I really wanted to say was, "We don't have time for that question now. Just don't use the N-word." But I knew that this was a pivotal point in my year and if I wanted to push kids, I had to push myself. I asked the students to close their books.
Internally I was shaking. What was I going to say? How did I let it get this far? Why wasn't I prepared for this? I had five seconds to come up with something.