This year in English class, after reading Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” we were asked to write an essay about whether the book should be taught in the high-school classroom. By that time, I had no doubt that it should be read and discussed by every student, especially students at Evanston Township High School. But once I got to the point of drafting my paper, I was stymied. We were working on our drafts in class on the day of the first School Board meeting about reforming the freshman humanities classes, and I couldn’t think about much anything else.
My experiences in mixed 2 Humanities and my journey in that class of working to overcome my own issues with racism had given me a different perspective on other people and society in general. And then an idea struck me. The journey that Huck took down the river with Jim was the same journey I went through by being in a class with students of color, low-income students, and students in regular-level classes, a journey that continues through struggling with the issues of race that reading and discussing Huck Finn in class brings up.
In all of the literary criticism for Huck Finn we had been asked to read for class, a quote by Nat Hentoff rang true and embodied my experience of straight honors 1 Humanities my freshman year and mixed 2 Humanities sophomore year: “Look at that Huck Finn. Reared in racism, like all the white kids in his town. And then, on the river, on the raft with Jim, shucking off that blind ignorance because this runaway slave is the most honest, perceptive, fair-minded man this white boy has ever known.”
I take myself back to my freshman year, a major contributor to my rearing in racism. Institutionalized racism. From the moment I step into my first-period 1 Humanities English Honors class, I am given the image of what I should think of as the best and the smartest: White upper-middle class kid who is good on paper. Huck is given essentially the same image: that whites are better and smarter because they know more about certain things, like Europe, or the Bible and having the belief that everything in the Bible is moral and good.
Both Huck and I follow what we are taught, because we don’t see anything wrong with it, not having ever seen otherwise. So when Huck and I get to the beginning of our journeys, his escape down the river and my venturing into the dangerous territory of mixed classes, we only see the superficial stereotypes that we have in our minds. Huck sees Jim as just a stupid, superstitious, escaped slave; I see the others in the class as less capable of engaging discussion-disruptive and lazy students who don’t get their work done.
It takes spending time with Jim for Huck to realize that Jim is a good man and that, in his heart, “somehow [he] couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden [himself] against him, but only the other kind”(214). Huck is surprised when he sees through the stereotypes he has in his mind about Jim. It also took time for me to realize that what I had come to believe about others was not true – that I was wrong in my thinking that students of color would not be as good at school as white students. I had the idea that students who were not in all honors classes were either stupid or did not try or care about school, especially not about doing assignments well, or even on time.
These were not stereotypes which I had sat and contemplated–they were just what I had got in my head from the environment around me; it was what seemed “natural.” It took my spending more than just one, two, or three days, more than a month or two even, with students of other races or socioeconomic classes for me to realize that I, and most of the other white honors kids I know, need to get off my imaginary, self-made pedestal.
Just as there is no one event that shows Huck’s getting to know Jim as they travel down river, it takes time to see what a class is really like. There was no one day that could properly represent that mixed-level class. Visiting a class without being a member does not allow one to see the overall quality of the learning experience. The problem is, just as Huck thinks he has to sacrifice his soul to help Jim, many white honors students think they would have to sacrifice some rigor or interest level of the class or how good they will look to colleges.
Being in a mixed class gave me an environment in which I felt I could grow and learn, much more so than when I was in straight honors. I learned how to work with other students in a group, even though we had different backgrounds and different opinions. I learned how to communicate better with and help those around me, learning to rephrase things if someone asked what something meant. I gained a sense of perspective that a straight honors class would not have allowed me, and it showed me that I had a lot of growing to do in terms of trying to understand how society and the world around me works. If anything, being in a class where there was a mixed level of ability motivated me to work harder on assignments, because there was not the same sense of needing to reach a certain level.
Huck’s journey continued in his dedication to not let Jim get captured. And for me, having this chance to re-examine race in our school, both through discussing “Huck Finn” and thinking about merging the freshman Humanities courses, has shown me where my journey needs to go. Thinking about these two issues together has given me something beyond what either of these issues would have given me alone.
I looked at the annual achievement assessment at ETHS, which includes a section with statistics involving race. I saw a frightening truth that needs to be addressed. The data in our school report shows without a doubt that we are under-serving the students of color at this school. White students come in with higher test scores than students of color, but that is not where the deepest flaw lies. White students’ test scores increase at least twice as much as those of students of color or low-income students here at ETHS for most categories; in some cases the gap is even larger.
And so continues my journey, now the journey of doing something about what I have seen. In the same way that Huck decides to go against what society has told him, we as a school need to go against the current inadequate system of tracking in order allow and help all students achieve, including those who have been overlooked in the current system. Some students come into the school with lower test scores than others, but that should not mean that they are not given the same help, the same boost that others get. If anything, students who come in with lower test scores should be getting more help. The current system is simply making the achievement gap grow.
The wrong of restricting students’ opportunities before they even walk through the doors of this school needs to be stopped. After my experiences, and after seeing the numbers, I believe that not combining our freshman courses is unfair to all students. All students deserve to have a diverse group of peers, diverse in race, socioeconomic class, or how well they can take a test. We as students can all help each other and pull each other up, but the school needs to make that possible for this to happen effectively. Combining the mixed and straight honors tracks will not only work towards decreasing the institutionalized racism at this school, but will also allow students to help each other learn.
Emma Milliken, junior at ETHS
ETHS junior Emma Milliken scored in the 98th percentile in English on the EXPLORE test and took straight honors 1 Humanities. During sophomore year she took mixed 2 Humanities. This year she is enrolled in multiple AP courses and scored a 31 on the ACT freshman year. So, she says, “”I’m one of the students who ‘might not be challenged enough’ in mixed classes.””