For the entirety of the 2016-2017 school year, I was a literacy instructor in an after school program for middle school students in Chelsea. I facilitated a literacy-boosting book club for sixth-grade students. The class met three times a week and was composed of nine students. Each of the nine had their own unique personality and hang ups in regard to literacy and reading scores. The students selected for the book club program were not the bottom-tier performers, nor were they top-tier performers. Through standardized testing, the school had identified a select group of students poised to improve their reading proficiency by a grade level.
My class was very diverse and reflective of the diversity of the student body. We met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from the beginning of November through the end of the school year in June. The class roster changed a little bit with every trimester as student schedules necessitated a switch to a different book club class, but the majority of the core group remained the same.
Of the limited selection of books we were allowed to teach, I was unfamiliar with most of them. I taught three books with which I was unfamiliar before the students chose a book with which I had a history. I’m not sure I ever actually read Hoops when I was in middle school, but Walter Dean Myers was certainly a big deal. A classic figure in the genre of young adult fiction, Walter Dean Myers famously depicted the life of minority students in the inner city of New York during the 1970s and 1980s. I brought Hoops in particular before my students because many of them were fairly athletic and each of them had expressed interest in basketball.
Hoops, for those of you that are unfamiliar with the story, is a fascinating coming-of-age story in which a team of young adults from the Harlem neighborhood of New York was brought together to participate in a basketball tournament that would ultimately be televised and could well launch the lives of the young characters.
Myers does not run from complex, deeply nuanced portrayals of life for black youth during the 1970s. The man selected to be the coach of the main characters’ tournament team is depicted as both a wino, drunk on the courts when our jaded protagonist finds him. Lonnie, a seventeen-year-old high school senior and our protagonist, stares down the reality and uncertainty of the rest of his life like the barrel of a gun. Lonnie attends school, albeit reluctantly, and spends his off hours working at a hotel or playing basketball at local parks with his friends. He cannot believe it when the wino he’d kicked off the basketball court in an earlier sequence appears as a coach to his time. He learns that the drunkard he’d scuffled with was none other than Cal Jones, an infamous former NBA player who had been forced to leave the league discredited after being caught gambling and fixing games for his own benefit.
He has returned to the sport to coach a team of poor Street kids in the hope of clearing his name and taking revenge on those who framed him and black balled him from the industry. Myers elucidates the often overlooked truth that role models for students of color (sports stars, rappers, etc) are often complicated and do not carry the assumption of wholesomeness that white kids are free to enjoy. Myers also does not run from a true explanation of why that is. He takes on systemic racism, even in a way that is accessible to twelve and thirteen-year-olds living in a twenty-first-century world.
The Black Lives Matter movement and repeated instances of police brutality without consequence are preoccupations of all Americans’ minds–given they have a shred of humanity, of course. It was no different for my students, who often spoke about the violence when it came up in the news. Many of these kids, the majority of whom were boys, were engaged in naively political discourse around race based violence on as regular a basis as a new story broke in the news. Many of them had themselves experienced race-based discrimination or had family members who had if they had not yet themselves. My students were no strangers to the existence of racism, and yet they reacted to the presence of racism in literature in a startlingly negative way. It was almost as if they were appalled to see racism portrayed in fiction as if the world of literature is supposed to be set to a much higher, idyllic standard.
The structure of the course allowed students to read independently about half of the time. I remember a particular day that students were allowed to read independently. Each of the students had spread out around the room. A few of them had earbuds dangling from their ears, a special privilege I gave to those who were consistently good at keeping up with their work and reading the assigned material. The room calmed to a stillness as everyone read their books, but the silence wouldn’t last five whole minutes.
Thinking back on the day, it seems more reasonable to me now, the shock these eleven and twelve-year-olds experienced reading the book that day. It was probably the first time many of them had ever seen the n-word printed between the pages of a book they would have to read in school. The golden silence the class had achieved as they all hunkered down to their readings was broken by a defiant, nasally “Yooooo!” The voice belonged to a freckled, red-haired Puerto Rican boy. He was well known around the school for being very small, the smallest in his class, but the loudest and often troublesome. In a school in which so little of the student population was white, this boy was often picked on for being white–something that he vehemently countered with his Puerto Rican heritage. “This book is racist!”
Everyone looked up at him. A black student of Afro-Caribbean descent chuckled. “Nah, it’s not. You’re racist.”
“No, this book says “n*****r” over and over, it’s racist!”
“It says “n*****r!”
“So are you!”
The boy continued his tirade against the use of the n-word in the story, and each time another, darker person countered with the fact that the characters for whom this word was dialogue were characters of color using the word to describe themselves and their compatriots in a way that was not intended to be harmful or racially degrading. I took the opportunity presented by this unexpected outburst to engage in dialogue with my students about language and about the scourge of racism the book sought to point out.
The story really delves into racism about halfway through the book. The tournament team is shaping up nicely, and they spend their time in the locker room after practices and games discussing what their futures might be like as professional ball players. Their coach, a former NBA player who had been dishonorably dismissed from the League, provides harsh doses of reality in a series of scenes. He describes the way that black bodies are commodified by the professional sports industry, but that they are not respected. Cal, the coach, points out the grand gestures of forgiveness white players and white businessmen are offered, while black perpetrators like himself are vilified and made an example of.
This argument was very reminiscent of the political analyses I had witnessed coming from my students in regard to police brutality and other race-based issues of their day. However, there was something that repulsed them about seeing these realities played out in fiction. I wonder if this phenomenon is caused by the incomplete moral development of eleven and twelve-year-olds. Perhaps they have not yet developed a complete understanding of fiction’s purpose. Perhaps they believe that fiction–particularly fiction they are taught in school–should be held to a higher moral standard than the real world around them. Perhaps they pine for a realm in which things are simple and the world is as it is supposed to be.
Beyond the fascinating display of moral development, my students enjoyed the book when they could. Many of them struggled greatly with the New York City slang of the 1970s. New York City culture has experienced a massive cultural shift in the past forty years, and it is little surprise that my students, born and bred New Yorkers understood less of the slang than I did. This may have something also to do with the fact that these are young children of young parents. My father was forty years old when I was born. He was in his twenties during the 1970s; he remembers them fondly. That fondness has perhaps allowed more of that culture to be passed to me from 1000 miles away than to my students.
All in all, Hoops was the most difficult book to work through with my students. They were resistant to the moral implications of racism in literature. They lacked the acculturation to understand much of Myer’s slang, which was something that drew me to the book. They enjoyed the fast pace and the highly technical sports writing, however, which I hope helped spark a love of reading that would not have been there otherwise.