I entered my junior year high school English class with no expectations. I had survived two mind numbing years of English, and thought I knew what to expect. Instead, after we were all seated, our new teacher, Mr. Sanders, began pacing the room reading aloud from a novel. He gave us no introduction, not even the title of what he was reading. Were we supposed to take notes? Would there be a test? What was going on? We were polite and respectful, since it was 1963 and that was the norm, but we were puzzled.
We gradually realized that we knew nothing about reading literature, or else we were being reminded of what we used to know before high school had ruined it for us. He had joy in reading, delight in talking about reading, and encouragement for writing about what we were reading. Our first assignment on the novel was to pick one American book of social protest and analyze it in any way we saw fit. How to explain how shockingly radical this task was to those of us used to parroting the teacher’s point of view back?
I chose Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son. The book staggered me, introducing me to parts of life I had never seen. It was, for the times, a completely subversive text and also a perfectly timed reading for me, igniting a deep sense of the need for racial justice which has never left me.
On November 22, 1963, we were in Mr. Sanders’ English class when the P.A. system crackled and our principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Sanders began to cry and left the room. I had never seen a man cry, nor had a teacher ever left the room. He came back in, turned off the overhead lights, and stood looking out the window. We were able to sit and feel the impact of the shooting and the comfort of a teacher who didn’t insist on “business as usual.”
Several hours later, the P.A. crackled again and we knew the President was dead. My teacher at that class went right on talking about the American history lesson. But I wasn’t fooled, I knew we were experiencing real history and that Mr. Sanders had modeled the appropriate response.