By the time I was a junior Highland Park High School in Dallas in 1971, I had read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at least a dozen times. I read it for the pure joy of its prose.
But it took Eleanor Thornell, one of the last of that large cohort of never-married school teachers, to awaken a bunch of slack-jawed high schoolers to the book’s profound meaning. Miss Thornell was a genteel, old school Southern woman who had grown up in a Dallas, Texas in which black women weren’t permitted to try on the clothes at Neiman-Marcus.
In the month we spent on the book, we spent the entirety of one class on a single passage.
Huck comes upon the Phelps place and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer by Sally Phelps. Huck doesn’t yet know that Aunt Sally thinks he’s Tom and Huck is reduced to, ”trustin’ to Providence” to put the right words in his mouth.
Asked to explain his late arrival, he told Sally that the riverboat had blown a cylinder head.
“Good gracious, anybody hurt?,” asked Aunt Sally.
“No’m. Killed a n————-.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
In the never-ending quest to understand the complicated question of race in America, more is said in those 18 words than in the torrents of words that pour from liberal academics, professional race hustlers and politicallly-correct tut-tutters.
Miss Thornell was sufficiently discerning to understand what was being said and to illuminate it for the benefit of a room full of privileged 17-year olds.
But that was when classrooms were full of teachers as opposed to “educators” and the teachers were free to actually teach. And no, Miss Thornell didn’t use any euphemisms or hide behind devices such as “N-word.” She said the word out loud. To do less castrates the lesson…