On September 30, students walked into Room 322 to find a lively pre-class discussion already underway about our first impressions of the texts we had read for that day. The class collectively agreed that the scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) that detail Tom Robinson’s trial sucked; that the theory piece of the day, Nirmala Erevelles’ “Crippin’ Jim Crow,” matched well with the trial scene’s themes; and that there was some general confusion surrounding Jim Ferris’ poem “Normal.” These conclusions foreshadowed our upcoming class discussions. We first analyzed two poems – Ferris’ “Normal” and Sheila Black’s “What You Mourn” – and debated how the two poets gave different representations of disability. We then moved to discuss “Crippin’ Jim Crow” and the various problems surrounding the intersection of race, class, and disability in educational settings, specifically focusing on the school-to-prison pipeline and special education classrooms, before finally connecting our findings to TKAM for a few final thoughts and speculations.
We first analyzed two poems as a large group and discussed how they represent disability, starting off with “What You Mourn” by Sheila Black. Many students agreed that this poem represents disability as a natural part of life, and that any changes made to ‘fix’ that disability are unnatural, life-altering invasions. One student pointed out how Black uses natural imagery like “nesting” in one’s body, “unkempt trees,” and “the familiar lay of the land” to connect the narrator’s disability with positive, warm, and comforting images. Another student pointed out how the phrase “before I was changed” implies that not only did some outside force change her, but that it was against her will. While the doctors believe they’re freeing the narrator by fixing her legs, as evidenced in the first line when the doctor says “Now you will walk straight/on your wedding day,” she instead feels trapped in a body that’s not hers. In giving the narrator ‘greater mobility,’ the surgery took away the body she knew how to handle (possibly since birth) and forced her to relearn basic motor skills, turning the thing meant to free the narrator from her disability into a disabling force itself.
We then moved on to “Normal” by Jim Ferris and debated whether the poem was highlighting the positives of life with disability or critiquing certain aspects of it. On one hand, the poem highlights the separation between the outside world and the narrator and his car-watching buddies. A few students pointed out that the narrators feel like they’re ‘on the outside always looking in,’ watching a fast-paced world go by without them. Ferris emphasizes their separation in the last line of the poem when the narrator describes “a world going on, going by, going home,” but he never goes home himself. None of the cars that he and his buddies identify as they drive past the window stop to take any of them home, as if these men are living in a different world than the folks who drive past. On the other hand, a few other students – including myself – saw this poem as portraying a positive message about enjoying life no matter who you are. When I first read the poem, I noticed that Ferris set up a contrast between the folks playing softball in the field and the narrator car-watching with each of his buddies through establishing the softball players first, then the narrators. This specific placement highlights that the narrator has hobbies like other folks do, just that they’re different than the activities we normally consider. He seems to enjoy car-watching and connecting with other people in the facility. Not only does he casually mention details like how his dad used to have a ’57 Chevy when he spots one drive by, but another student pointed out that he also uses words like ‘soft’ and ‘lush’ to describe ‘the streets as far as I can see,’ implying that the narrator also finds joy in the general aesthetic of the environment around him.
After our lengthy discussion about the car-watching poem, we switched gears to small groups to discuss Everelles’ “Crippin’ Jim Crow.” My small group chose to focus at first on the school-to-prison pipeline, a model that details how if kids (especially those from minority groups) are labeled as troublemakers early on, those labels often become a self-fulfilling prophecy that turns those kids into actual criminals that will get arrested after they graduate. One of my groupmates proposed a solution: if these kids are threatened like this in school and/or they really are acting out, why not just homeschool the kids instead? This question turned our discussion into a debate about the pros and cons of homeschool vs. public school in this scenario. On one hand, it’s the parents’ responsibility to raise their kids and make them behave, so if the parents can’t fix any systemic issues that are causing this problem, they should take the initiative and educate the kids themselves. Besides, homeschool is a cheaper option than public school and it will reduce the chance of going to jail. However, on the other hand, many families can’t afford to homeschool their kids. You need at least one parent to stay home and teach the kids, but if your family is poor and both parents need to work, there’s not enough time, energy, or resources that the family can dedicate towards making homeschool work. Homeschool does not guarantee that a minority kid won’t get arrested and many parents can’t speak up because of the systemic issues, just like we saw with Tom Robinson’s trial in TKAM. Public school also gives kids a chance to not only get away from failing and/or abusive parents, but also helps them develop their social skills and increase their knowledge through interacting with people other than their family. As we went back and forth dissecting each of the pros and cons, we realized that the school-to-prison pipeline is a multi-faceted problem that has no easy solution. One of my group members even theorized that the pipeline may be ‘a midpoint in the solution train’ in that it may have been created to solve another underlying problem. It isn’t a good solution, but it’s also not the worst-case scenario, so it can definitely be improved for the future.
Our small group discussion was cut short when Dr. Foss called everyone to reconvene for our final large group discussion of the day. The conversation shifted to focus on how special education functions as ‘a postcolonial ghetto’ that segregates all the ‘deviant’ bodies from the mainstream population. These classrooms may have been designed with good intentions – to help kids with disabilities actually learn something in school in a supportive environment tailored to their needs – but they may not be as good in practice as they are on paper. Many students shared their own experiences with special education programs, critiquing certain elements like placing the special ed classrooms away from the rest of the student body or focusing more attention on elementary school students versus high school students. We concluded that even designated communities can be forms of segregation, and used this idea as a transition to talk about TKAM for the last few minutes of class. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are both segregated from the greater Maycomb community, but in different ways for different reasons. Boo Radley is segregated by his family and the community to keep him away from the community at large. Meanwhile, Tom Robinson is segregated from the community because he’s black and he’s a ‘dangerous predator’ because Mayella accused him of raping her. One student pointed out that a lot of what’s going on in the novel follows the statues of ‘the ugly law’ – basically, if something is not pleasing to look at or will disturb any passerby, you must get rid of the thing that doesn’t fit The AestheticTM, including disabled people like Boo Radley and ‘dangerous predators’ and minorities like Tom Robinson.
If this is the case in the novel, one student asked, then is Mrs. Maudie immune to getting worked up over racism, what Atticus calls ‘Maycomb’s usual disease?’ Is Atticus immune? It may be more complicated than that. As a final thought, Dr. Foss reminded us that since multiple factors are at play in the novel, we can’t just focus on race. We need to consider the ways in which race, class, and disability intersect and work together in order to understand and ultimately solve these complex problems.
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Melissa Madsen
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