Huck Finn, the "N Word" and One Teacher's Embarrassment
How Mark Twain's classic taught a columnist to prepare himself in the classroom.
The sanitized version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, due for publication in this month, comes nearly 50 years too late for this embarrassed former English teacher.
New South Books is publishing the revisionist copy of Mark Twain’s classic novel that will eliminate the “n” word, which appears 219 times in the original, and replace it with “slave.”
When I read the news, I wondered out loud, “Where the heck were you when I needed you?”
I endured my most-embarrassing moment as an educator in the fall of 1962 when I was teaching an English course at Washington (N.J.) High School, now a part of Warren Hills Regional in Warren County.
With a year’s teaching experience under my belt from Stroudsburg High School, I was hired at Washington to teach four sections of French, my major. The weekend before classes started, High School Principal James Evergetis also tossed me one freshman English course since I had a minor in English.
With zero preparation time, I would literally have to keep one step ahead of the students for most of the school term. Aside from the usual requirements of composition, grammar, spelling, syntax and sentence structure, there was a mandated literary component – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I had never read Twain’s novel, either as a boy or in school, so my plan was to take the weekend prior to the Monday when we would start studying the novel and consume most, if not all of it, during the intervening 54 hours.
Little did I suspect that a series of events on that Friday before the start of the weekend would coincide to leave me red-faced, soaked in sweat at the end of that day's English class and properly chastened about the importance of class preparation.
I had finished the assigned grammar lesson about 20 minutes before the end of class. To fill the remaining time, I distributed copies of Huckleberry Finn, announced to the class that we would begin studying this American classic on Monday and decided that I and several students would read the first few chapters aloud to set the scene for Monday's class. To be honest, I also wanted to kill the remaining time in the period.
I read the first chapter aloud cold turkey and was absolutely shocked when I encountered the “n” word, but I said it without any comment or change of voice. I assumed – incorrectly as it turned out – that it was a once-and-done aberration.
The student in the first row of the class of 25 and to the far right was Arnold Thompson, the only African-American in the class. I asked him to start reading at the beginning of chapter two. As he began, I skipped down the page speed-reading to myself and hoping not to encounter any other surprises.
My eyes widened as I saw a paragraph halfway down the page with the “n” word used six times. Arnie Thompson, who went on to become a two-time New Jersey state wrestling champ in two weight classes, was closing in on this paragraph. I broke into a cold sweat.
Arnie came to the “n” word and stopped cold. I prompted him by saying the word aloud. Each time he came to the word in the paragraph, he did the same thing – stopped dead. Each time I broke the deafening silence by saying the word aloud.
The following week, after I had had time to do my homework, I introduced the novel properly, putting the use of the “n” word into context and explaining that Twain was a committed anti-slavery advocate who actually advanced the cause of equality through his writings.
I learned a valuable classroom lesson: I learned a valuable lesson: Never try to bluff your way through a class without proper preparation.
As for Arnie, I tracked him down about 20 years later, when he was serving in a ministerial capacity for an Easton church, and apologized for what I had subjected him to on that fateful Friday afternoon. He was gracious in his acceptance of my much belated apology, but I was convinced that for the rest of our lives, whenever we would hear of Huckleberry Finn, we could not help but recall the needless awkwardness and embarrassment that occurred that fall day back in 1962.