Students hated ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Their teachers tried to dump it.

MUKILTEO, Wash. — Students first told Shanta Freeman-Miller about how it hurt to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” five years ago.

The stories came out during Wednesday meetings of the Union for Students of African Ancestry, a group that Freeman-Miller, one of the only Black teachers at Kamiak High School, founded at teens’ request. Students shared their discomfort with the way the 1960 novel about racial injustice portrays Black people: One Black teen said the book misrepresented him and other African Americans, according to meeting records reviewed by The Washington Post. Another complained the novel did not move her, because it wasn’t written about her — or for her.

A third spoke about how a White teen said the n-word aloud while reading from “Mockingbird,” disobeying the teacher’s instructions to skip the slur, the student recalled in an interview with The Post. She spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of harassment.

“The kid looked at every Black person — there’s three Black people in that class — and smiled,” the student said, according to meeting records and her memory. “And the plot is not even good.”

Freeman-Miller wondered: Did the school really have to teach Harper Lee’s classic but polarizing novel, as was mandatory for all freshmen? She soon talked with three White English teachers also concerned about the novel. The foursome eventually launched a years-long quest to prohibit any teacher in the liberal, hilly Mukilteo School District from assigning “Mockingbird.” And it started with a formal book challenge in late 2021 — the first in 20 years, and the first ever to come from teachers.

“To Kill A Mockingbird centers on whiteness,” the teachers wrote in their challenge, adding that “it presents a barrier to understanding and celebrating an authentic Black point of view in Civil Rights era literature and should be removed.”

Their objection was a drop in the enormous wave of school book challenges cresting nationwide. Objections to texts broke records in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association, which has tracked such challenges for more than two decades. The majority of filings targeted books by and about LGBTQ individuals or people of color, per a Washington Post analysis of 2,500 pages of school book challenges filed nationally in the 2021-2022 academic year.Most came from parents or residents: Of the nearly 500 book challengers who gave an identification in The Post’s database, just eight said they were school staff.

Around the country, book challengers mostly came from the right. But in Mukilteo, the progressive teachers who complained about the novel saw themselves as part of an urgent national reckoning with racism, a necessary reconsideration of what we value, teach and memorialize following the killing of George Floyd. They weren’t asking to pull the book from the library — just to stop forcing it on students. They believed they were protecting children.

“I heard kids talking about it,” said Rachel Johnson, one of the Kamiak teachers who campaigned against the novel. “I heard kids feeling isolated.”

But other teachers and librarians, especially those at nearby Mariner High School, saw the Kamiak foursome as book banners.

“Any time you restrict access to students, it’s unfair,” said Stephanie Wilson, a Mariner teacher-librarian. “This was, to me, a form of censoring.”

The fight over “Mockingbird” would spark a rare moment of national political unity, with right-wing critics alleging the district wanted to censor a classic in service of a “woke” agenda — while left-wing detractors insisted teachers were erasing the reality of racism. It would leave the superintendent fielding more than 100 angry phone calls and emails, some librarians wondering what might be challenged next and some teachers scared to assign “Mockingbird” for fear of being labeled racist.

The four teachers who challenged “Mockingbird” knew things might go sideways. Nearly a year before she would object to the title, Johnson sat down and penned an email to her principal, girding for the difficult path ahead.

“I understand the delicate politics here … the plan to remove TKM may backfire,” she wrote in late 2020. “I also know that the racial trauma our students of African Ancestry are dealing with is raw and real. … I will stand by you. I will take the angry phone calls.”

“I know,” she wrote, “this is the right call.”

About a year after Freeman-Miller convened the Union for Students of African Ancestry, her colleague Johnson, a 20-year teacher who grew up in Seattle, was listening to a podcast in her car.

The Black hosts of the show joked that “Mockingbird” ranked with Confederate monuments as something painful to Black people, but which White people adored. Johnson, who grew up loving “Mockingbird,” identifying with White protagonist Scout, felt shaken — and guilty.

Around the same time, Kamiak English teachers Riley Degamo and Verena Kuzmany also began to question the book’s place in the curriculum. Degamo said she was hearing from students, both White and Black, who disliked the book. She will never forget one teen’s assessment, scrawled on a homework assignment: “This is f—— bulls—.”

Kuzmany had studied Black American writers and 19th-century slave narratives while earning a graduate degree in comparative literature from the University of Washington in 2014. After talking to Johnson and Degamo about “Mockingbird,” she began to wonder why Kamiak couldn’t teach literature by Black authors instead.

“I don’t think that White authors and White characters should tell the narratives of African American people,” Kuzmany said. “The usefulness of the book has run its course.”

By chance, Freeman-Miller and Johnson had been elected co-chairs of the English department. The foursome decided to do something — starting with an email to the principal.

End of carousel

“I am asking you to allow teachers who choose to do so to skip teaching TKM this year,” Johnson wrote in September 2020, “while we work on the process to remove it entirely from the curriculum.”

Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s novel — which recounts the story of a White lawyer, Atticus Finch, fruitlessly defending a Black man falsely accused of rape — has drawn both protests and paeans.

The objections to the book have shifted over time. In 1966, a Virginia school board banned the book for its “immoral” depiction of rape. Forty years later, a California school district forbade teaching “Mockingbird” after parents alleged it was racist for its use of the n-word and portrayal of Black people. Lee’s novel made the American Library Association’s top 10 list of most challenged books in 2009, 2011, 2017 and 2020.

Over the years, opponents of the book have argued its 48 mentions of the n-word are harmful to students, especially students of color, and that the novel focuses unduly on a “white savior” in protagonist Atticus Finch, leaving out the voices of the Black characters.

But the book has also earned critical acclaim and generations of fans, who praise it for its lyricism and its honest portrayal of racism in the American South. It won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year after it was published. In 2021, New York Times readers voted it the best book of the past 125 years.

Like the American public, students attending Mukilteo over the years had strong, divided reactions to the novel — feelings that lingered long after they read it as freshmen.

Joy Matthew, a 2021 graduate and a student at Emory University, loved the book for its “carefully thought-out writing and storytelling.” Matthew, who is Black, wrote in a statement that she will never forget the character of Tom Robinson, the Black man accused of rape, nor how Lee compared him to a songbird.

“The bird represents his innocence and fragility in society and how people can hear a voice so quietly but pay no mind to it,” she wrote. Removing “Mockingbird” would mean “silencing Tom Robinson and every black man who has been unfairly persecuted.”

Dyonte Law, a Black man who graduated from Mariner in 2015, wrote in an email that the book made him realize why he’d grown up being treated differently by White peers. “I thought it was all in my mind, [but] Harper Lee allowed me to put into perspective the idea of inherent bias,” he wrote, “and how an entire community can be unaware of the fact that they even held a bias” — referring to the way many White adults in the novel condemn Robinson without a second thought.

But Chaitna Deshmukh, a 2022 graduate who was still in school when teachers challenged the book, thinks the novel — while pertinent to the 1960s — fails to address the complex racial problems of the 21st century.

“If you read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and think, ‘This is what racism looks like,’ then you look at today and you’ll be like, ‘Great, we fixed it,’” said Deshmukh, who is of South Asian descent. “Which is misleading in a lot of ways.”

At Kamiak in fall 2021, administrators soon granted Degamo and other teachers permission not to assign “Mockingbird.” But they stalled on the request to make it permanently optional. Policy dictated that any such request would have to be made districtwide, through a formal book challenge.

So, like parents across the country, the teachers pulled up a form headed “Citizen’s Request for Reconsideration.” Across five typed pages, nine neat paragraphs and 1,267 words, using impeccable grammar and citing their sources, they made their case.

The book could and should be replaced by titles such as “All American Boys” and “The Hate U Give,” both of which have Black authors and wrestle with 21st-century racism in America.

“As English teachers, we believe in the power of literature. We are also keenly aware of the dangers of careless censorship,” they wrote. But “it becomes painfully obvious that this novel … does not belong in our curriculum.”

For a group of teachers three miles away at Mariner High School, the complaint seemed to come from nowhere.

They found out when the curriculum director sent an email notifying them of the challenge, explaining that the next step in the process, per district policy, was a meeting of the Instructional Materials Committee. At that session, supporters and detractors of the book would have a chance to present their arguments to committee members, a group of almost two dozen parents and school staff — including Freeman-Miller, who did not author or sign the other three Kamiak teachers’ challenge so she could retain her role judging the book.

Mariner English teachers Ann Freemon and Lauren Salcedo, as well as librarian Wilson, had read online about the national surge in book challenges. But they never expected any to arise in their mostly blue district — certainly not from fellow teachers.

“It was, kind of, getting punched in the gut,” Salcedo said.

All three had taught or given out “Mockingbird” for years, conscious it had flaws and sticky spots — at a 2020 curriculum meeting, Salcedo actually suggested holding trainings on how to teach the book in a “culturally sustaining” way. But they never questioned whether the book deserved to be taught. The two teachers always told students not to read the n-word out loud. All three said they never received a formal student complaint about the title.

Salcedo, who teaches ninth-grade English and journalism, said “Mockingbird” helped her talk with students about current-day racial crises such as the killing of George Floyd. The book, she believed, gave students “a contextual foundation for why these things are happening.”

And Freemon, who taught every level of English in her 34-year career at Mukilteo, said the book many times served as a history lesson. She said students came to her class not knowing what the Jim Crow laws were, nor anything else about the ingrained racism of Depression-era America.

“So then they would understand, and they were appalled every time,” said Freemon, who retired at the end of last school year. “It’s just so valuable to have that history and have that literature. And it’s good literature.”

The meeting of the Instructional Materials Committee, at which members would decide the fate of “Mockingbird” in Mukilteo, was set for Dec. 2, 2021.

The Kamiak teachers began preparing to argue against the book. The Mariner teachers, to defend it.

The virtual session, held on a Thursday afternoon, was supposed to last two hours. It took 3½.

A half-dozen participants later described the private meeting, which was not recorded, as filled with technical difficulties and emotional testimony. All those who spoke, for and against the book, were teachers. (The district denied a request to let students speak.)

“We profoundly question why we should read a book by a White author, in which Black characters are secondary, voiceless, meek, and two-dimensional,” Kuzmany of Kamiak said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks.

“I am standing against taking books out of the hands of our students for any reason,” Freemon of Mariner said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks. “There is not one novel that we teach at the high school that is not offensive to someone, in some capacity.”

At the close of the meeting, the committee voted on two questions: First, whether the novel should be removed from the ninth-grade required reading list. Second, whether it should be removed from a broader list of district-approved novels, meaning it could not be assigned in classrooms.

The committee split: 63 percent voted to remove “Mockingbird” from the ninth-grade required list. But 68 percent voted to keep it on the approved novels list. Freeman-Miller voted to yank it from both lists. Two months later, the school board voted unanimously — 5-0 — to uphold the committee’s recommendation.

“Mockingbird” could still be taught. But it would no longer be mandatory for freshmen.

Kimora Tornga, a 17-year-old of African and Korean descent, doesn’t know whether she wants to read “Mockingbird.”

Tornga, a Kamiak senior, remembers loving the play “A Raisin in the Sun” when she read it last school year, even though it had the n-word. The n-word can be justified in literature, she said, if the author “has it as a theme and it’s a moral,” teaching students how bad the word is.

She is reserving judgment on “Mockingbird”: “I need to be able to read it myself,” she said. But she — like many other Mukilteo students — will have to encounter the novel on her own time, now, not in school.

As far as anyone can determine, Freemon is the only teacher who dared assign the book in the school year following the challenge, she said. She taught the book in 2022-2023, feeling “lonely,” she said.

Emily Nelson-Doney, a White sophomore who took Freemon’s class that year, said she loved “Mockingbird” so much that she checked it out to read again — in graphic novel form — last month. She recalled her classmates as riveted by the book, too, especially by the moment when Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, face down a mob outside the jail. That scene spurred an intense class discussion about how a child’s innocence “helped fix the situation,” said Nelson-Doney, 16.

“It got into dark details, the hard truth of back then: how one person who was a White person could say one bad thing and a man, a person of color, would get in trouble for it,” she said of “Mockingbird.” She feels bad for students who didn’t read it: “They lost a good book.”

This year, the first year after Freemon’s retirement, no teacher in the Mukilteo district had assigned the book as of late October, she said.

“Students are going to lose out,” Freemon said.

Mariner English teacher Salcedo said that other things have been lost, too: “Like trust, and a belief that everyone is on the same team.”

Still, superintendent Alison Brynelson said she thinks there were positive outcomes. Because of what happened, she said, the district held two trainings on how to teach controversial materials, hosted by nonprofit “Facing History & Ourselves” — trainings Salcedo had recommended and was pleased to see adopted. The Instructional Materials Committee added two student members, endowed with the power to shape the curriculum. The district also updated its policies for book challenges, clarifying that teachers have the right to pick supplemental class materials, although the board must approve core curriculum.

But Brynelson admitted a feeling of ongoing tension.

“Everybody is passionate and everybody believes in their own perspective and everybody, you know, thinks they’re doing the best on behalf of kids,” she said. “It’s a tough time.”

The teachers who raised the alarm about “Mockingbird” have mixed feelings about what they accomplished. And failed to accomplish.

Each said it’s a good thing all freshmen no longer have to read the book. Each said they think students will be harmed because the book remains as a teaching option. Each said the district failed to undertake the thoughtful, nuanced discussion about “Mockingbird” they had envisioned. And everyone except Kuzmany — who is on leave this year — said they now face, to greater or lesser degrees, a poisoned work environment.

Still, each said they would do it again.

“I have a responsibility to my ancestors,” Freeman-Miller said. “I have a responsibility to my descendants.”

On a gray Monday in mid-October this year, Degamo surveyed her class of ninth-graders, the second she had taught since the district made “Mockingbird” optional. As raindrops splattered the window, she asked the freshmen to take out their planners — or, if they’d mislaid those, scraps of paper — so they could write down that week’s lesson plans.

“Wednesday, we will read the short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’” she said. With Halloween coming up, “a timely, creepy, short story. Kind of funny, if you have kind of a dark sense of humor.”

And, despite everything, Degamo felt a small thrill of pride. Because her students, she could be sure, would not have to pencil in the title: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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