This is a response to Mr. Gordon Weil’s recent essay about teaching critical race theory and religion in schools (“Race theory, religion become hot issues for education,” The Times Record, June 11).

Let’s begin with “filed teeth” — the better to eat people with. Let’s also note lines like “he saw that these people were more wicked than apes” and the European “hereditary” instincts that prevented the white man from consuming the flesh of the black warrior he hanged from a tree. It was the fall of 1998, the year I began my career as an English teacher at a high school in Maine. On my desk was a book first published in 1912 called “Tarzan of the Apes,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had not chosen this text to teach my all white class of 9th graders. It was a book that was in the curriculum, and by the aged look of the stack of Tarzans on my shelves, had been taught to generations of white Maine students.

I don’t know how other teachers before me had taught Tarzan. Maybe they had simply assessed students with true or false questions about the plot. Care to try?

True or False: Before they kill their captive and then eat him, the circle of black cannibals “lick their hideous lips” and “dance in wild and savage abandon to the maddening music of the drums.”

Answer: True.

I want you to know I didn’t teach Tarzan that way. Instead, we read the book and talked about stereotypes and Burrough’s use of white and black symbolism.

Answer: White — Good, brave, and godlike.

Black — Evil and savage. Often eaten by crocodiles and lions.

After we finished the book and watched the school’s VHS tape of the 1932 film “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” my students wrote an essay to the following prompt: Although Tarzan has lots of action and adventure, it also promotes negative stereotypes. Should I teach the novel Tarzan and show the film? Why or why not?

It is 2019 and I’m at a different high school in Maine. When I look at the novels students read in the 9th grade English curriculum, they are all from the 20th century and all the protagonists are white and heterosexual. All the authors are white. Black characters, if there are any, play minor roles and all are unskilled laborers.

This is unacceptable because each year my classes have more and more Black, Asian-American and openly LGBTQ+ students. These students do not see themselves accurately represented in the literature I teach.

It is 2021 and some politicians and parents are lashing out against critical race theory being taught in schools. Though the term is new to me, I think I was applying it back in 1998 when I was critical of Burrough’s racist characterization of Africans. I was absolutely, not theoretically, certain about this, though.

It is 2021 and I am teaching my 9th graders “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. All of my students love the book because it is about being a teenager and dealing with strict parents, high school, texting, dating, grief and yes, systemic racism in the justice system, an idea they had already encountered when Tom Robinson was found guilty of rape by an all-white jury in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  Not once have I told white students to feel bad about being white.

It is 2021 and we have read the first chapter of “When the Emperor was Divine,” a novel about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A student raises her hand.

“I can’t believe I’m 14 years old and was never taught this. Why?”

Why? Good question–and here is a teaching tip for you. You don’t answer such hard questions but turn the question back to the student to answer.

And her answer wasn’t about making people feel guilty for being white. Her answer was that some folks would rather treat stories from U.S. history and American literature like shameful family secrets to be covered up. And then my amazing 9th grader spoke about “healing” and “learning from the past so mistakes like this won’t happen again” and how “you can still love America and know some hard truths.”

Here is a hard truth. Education is a road trip to self-discovery. Students grow as learners and thinkers when they not only see themselves accurately represented in the history and literature they read but also hear from voices whose backgrounds and experiences are different from their own. And often these voices speak of hardships white Americans have not experienced such as when the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun encounter white resistance when they plan to move to an all-white neighborhood.

So the next time you hear someone lament that schools are actively teaching critical race theory, please tell them we’re not. What we are doing is removing harmful and dehumanizing texts like “Tarzan, the Ape Man” that teach lessons about race you and I no longer want taught and replacing them with texts whose characters offer insight into our shared humanity and American story.

But don’t take my word for it. Read “Tarzan, the Ape Man” and ask yourself if you’d want this book taught to high school students in 2021. If not, then maybe you have a future as an advocate for equity and inclusion in Maine public schools. Welcome to the club.

Gregory Greenleaf is a English Teacher/IB CAS Coordinator at Greely High School in Cumberland Center. He lives in Harpswell.

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