This post is written by Anna Baldwin, NCTE’s P12 Policy Analyst and the 2014 State Teacher of the Year for Montana.
When I was named 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, I really had no idea what awaited me. I did not anticipate the boot camp of professionalizing my rhetoric, social skills, and even my appearance. Through this, I learned a simple truth: I only needed to remember my own “why.”
My love affair with English started with diagramming sentences and reading dictionaries. I’m enamored with etymology. I ponder sentence structure and climb the family tree of language. To me, this—the study of language and etymology—is magical.
Let’s play a little. What about the etymology of the word etymology? Of course
-ology is the Greek for study of something. Etymos, it turns out, is also Greek for true, real, actual. So etymology is the study of something’s true sense.
When we consider the true sense of a thing, do we not discover its essence? This is what happens when, as a literature teacher, I share great texts with students. I want them to learn about themes and context, the true sense of the thing. I want them to connect to the text personally.
One of my favorite novels for this is To Kill a Mockingbird. This text teaches beautiful, and hard, lessons. For example, after Mrs. Dubose’s passing, Atticus shares an important truth with Jem: “I wanted you to see what real courage is . . . It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Before Tom Robinson’s trial, Atticus needs his children to see and feel integrity before the ugliness to come. It is the kind of lesson we can and should discuss in a high school classroom.
High schoolers can also consider how it might feel to walk in Boo Radley’s shoes. An outcast through no fault of his own, Boo is simply trying to get along in his peculiar circumstance. Once Scout can see Boo as a person, she understands that he too has conscience, that he too needs compassion. It is also the kind of lesson we can and should discuss in a high school classroom.
The most powerful moment of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, to me, is the final courtroom scene. The room empties out, except Atticus below and the African American townspeople on the balcony. The text reads, “All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s: ‘Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.’”
In that moment, we feel what it means to keep on going, even when you know you’re licked. All those words: courage, respect, integrity, decency—they are the true sense of the thing, of what it means to be human.
Of course, I can also use the novel to teach my Montana students about the South, about racial tension, about how it was to grow up there. Those tensions and the anger persist, and it takes clear vision and commitment to overcome the loudest, most abrasive individuals, those that shoot up a Charleston church, auction the gun used to kill a black teenager, or punch political rally-goers. They are the Ewells of To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is so much to be learned from watching Atticus and Miss Maudie’s responses to those folks, trying to show the children what it means to be human. Those are the moments when a teacher can say, “how do these characters teach us to be better people?”
In my classroom, I don’t shy away from talking about race, inequity, or the cages that our education system creates. From the books I select to the discussion topics I choose, I invite the power of literature to help students investigate their own true sense.
In Teacher of the Year boot camp, I had to tell my story, and to do that I revisited my love of language and my commitment to a just society. In etymologizing myself, I remembered my simple truth: this is why I teach, and this is why I teach English.
Anna E. Baldwin, EdD, has been teaching English to high school students on the Flathead Indian Reservation for 17 years and is the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year. This post is an adaptation of the address she gave at the 2016 University of Montana English Department commencement ceremony. Anna is also a coauthor of Sherman Alexie in the Classroom: “This is not a silent movie. Our voices will save our lives” (2008, NCTE High School Literature Series).