Posted on March 4, 2022

The N-Word Doesn’t Belong in a Fourth-Grade Classroom, Even in Poetry

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2022

San Diego teacher Amy Glancy thought she’d prepared her fourth-grade students for the day’s language arts lesson. She knew there was a land mine in the poem she planned to read, but she considered it essential to what she was trying to teach.

The reading Glancy chose was Countee Cullen’s iconic Harlem Renaissance poem “Incident,” which poignantly renders a Black child’s painful encounter with racism, when a white boy calls him the N-word.

Glancy, who is white, said she wanted to “elevate the voices of Black poets” and chose this poem to support her school’s curricular focus on understanding U.S. history “from the nonwhite point of view.”

But her choice to read the actual slur aloud shocked and wounded some of her students and alarmed the school officials who heard their complaints.

Now Glancy, a veteran teacher new to the progressive High Tech Elementary School in Point Loma, has been pulled from her classroom while the incident is investigated. And she has landed in the midst of an ongoing national debate over how, why and whether the N-word should ever be uttered in classrooms.

The argument reflects the complexities of this moment in time where the N-word is a lightning rod.

Glancy said she cautioned the children before she read the poem, warning that some important parts might be uncomfortable to hear.

“Words are so powerful, and I want them to know that,” she explained to me.

Apparently that was something her 9- and 10-year-old students already knew — and they proceeded to school their teacher.

As soon as Glancy uttered the N-word, a student called out, “I can’t believe you did that!” and stormed out of class, followed by another angry student. Other students stayed but took their teacher to task.

“Ms. Glancy, you don’t understand how hard it is to hear that word,” one child told her, plaintively.

Two boys — one Black and one white — were particularly upset. They listened as the teacher explained her thinking, then they complained to the dean at lunchtime.

Glancy had expected “a big conversation” about the language in the poem, she said. But she did not anticipate the hostility of the fallout and was not equipped to address the hurt.

“I was very apologetic for making them feel that way,” she said.

When a student came to her after class and said “I can’t believe you said that word,” Glancy tried to blunt the pain: “I said, ‘I read the word’… It was [the poet’s] experience and his language, and it’s not my job to censor that.”


I tried to listen dispassionately. But I could see myself in every dimension of the story she told.

I was that 8-year-old in the poem, called “nigger” by white girls not much older than me, on a sleepover at the YMCA. It was supposed to be a fun community event for my sister and me. But even now, more than 50 years later, I remember how helpless and frightened we felt, in a room full of white people, with no one we could trust to protect us.

Decades later, I was that mother complaining to a middle-school teacher about subjecting Black kids to Mark Twain’s “nigger Jim,” over and over again. I knew that some kids in my daughter’s class snickered as they read “Huckleberry Finn,” while the lone Black boy in class sometimes seemed to be on the verge of tears. Did allegiance to the canon of American literature justify sacrificing his well-being?

And in between, I’d been the teacher in a college journalism class, confronted by a student who didn’t understand why she was not allowed to render an interview authentically. She’d been told to use “the N-word” in her story, even though the man she’d interviewed had said “nigger.” I responded to her question with the professorial version of “Because I say so” — because I was tired of explaining the heritage and hurt of the word to clueless white students.


If Glancy were a Black teacher, I suspect this would have played out differently — or not occurred at all. Black teachers would likely have had their own N-word experiences to draw on, and might be more likely to consider whether the literary lesson would be worth the pain the word could spawn.