Teaching Of Mice and Men

One old white dude’s voyage of discovery over 38 years in the classroom.

I was fascinated to read earlier this month a call for Of Mice and Men to be filtered when read aloud in the classroom so that one specific offensive word was not used.  This was a campaign promoted by “anti-racist educator” Marsha Garratt up in Teesside, and the BBC story can be found here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-58842159

It set me thinking about my own steadily evolving relationship to teaching the book, since I first started as a Secondary English teacher way back in 1982. When I arrived in London in 1981 my life experience was almost exclusively a white one. I was born and brought up in Teesside, and then went to University in York. After a year or so of crummy jobs I found myself living in Valencia in Spain for a year. So up until the age of twenty four, everywhere I had lived was overwhelmingly white. I was a socialist and a passionate believer in equality and the struggle for social justice, so my ideology was progressive, but my lived experience was narrow.

Moving to London in this context was exhilarating. I lived in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Stamford Hill before moving to Brixton. Before that I had first lived in Kings Cross, where the most notable minority community appeared to be sex workers, judging by the number of used syringes and condoms I had to kick out of the doorway of the short life housing flat/Squat where I lived, every time I left in the morning. It was a whirlwind of new experiences and especially invigorating being part of a rich, diverse community.

This was the major chord of starting to work as an English teacher in the ILEA – the extraordinary range and variety of people who went to Inner London schools. It’s multi racial character was a real source of strength and was something that the ILEA rightly celebrated. This was when I first encountered Of Mice and Men. It was a fixed part of the English Curriculum even then, and I set about preparing to teach it, aided and abetted by the English Centre’s seminal study guide on the book. ( the inclusion of Steinbeck’s letter to Annie Luce, the actress cast to play Curley’s wife in the first stage production was hugely significant and an invaluable resource in the classroom ) When I first read the novel, I was struck by how powerful it was. Of all the novels we taught in those days, it was probably the most perfect.

Why was that?

  1. It was short, so you could read it aloud as a complete text and still generate enough written and discussion work to fulfil assessment requirements.
  2. It’s perfectly structured, coming full circle to finish where it started, as foreshadowed in the opening chapter, in the brush by the river. And because of that it made it easier to teach what, for many pupils, is a complex and abstract concept: whole text structure.
  3. Steinbeck’s prose, like Arthur Miller’s in many of his plays, was a wonderful celebration of the poetry of the vernacular. Spare and simple, both dialogue and description are masterful examples of economy of expression. At a time when many students suffer from a devotion to the Thesaurus and equate baroque purple prose with quality, this was an invaluable antidote.
  4. It never failed, in over thirty-five years, to provoke an emotional reaction from readers. It was a rare day when the reading of the final chapter did not have students in floods of tears. Even stony-faced macho boys would permit themselves a quiver of the lip at the end. At a time when reading is under threat as never before from a panoply of more seductive, modern pursuits, this was invaluable. It opened a door to a world where books could make connections, generate meaning and have a real impact on the way someone viewed themselves in society. Suddenly, books had a point. They made sense. They were endorsed as a thing of value, rather than something dull and worthy that posh people did at home and everyone else was forced to do at school.
  5. It generated mind-bending shifts in attitudes about women, black people, workers, sexism, racism and capitalism and deepened understanding of our history and how and why things are as they are now in relation to the past. I can recall numerous light bulb moment lessons when students suddenly made a connection between Steinbeck’s intentions for his depiction of Curley’s Wife and the way she was described by the men on the ranch. In that way, it also was the first time that many students had considered the idea of an unreliable witness in fiction. The first appearance of Curley’s wife in the novel routinely confirms for most students the opinion expressed by Candy. They think of her as a flirt, a “floozy”. The description of her dead body causes them to think again, powerfully but not in a hectoring, lecturing way. The first reaction places them in the position of the men on the ranch, the last places them outside of the novel, in the position of Steinbeck. For many students, for the first time, they are aware of the idea of a writer manipulating and deceiving the reader for a deeper purpose.

There is a problem here, though,  and with the depiction of Crooks. It needs very careful, skilful teaching for it to work. Some students don’t get beyond agreeing with Candy when it comes to Curley’s Wife. You really have to commit as a teacher, to go the extra mile here. This is why the Steinbeck letter is so unusual and so important, providing a rare example in the classroom of evidence of the author’s intentions outside of the main text. Unfortunately, no such equivalent text exists to help with the teaching of Steinbeck’s presentation of Crooks.

The scene in Crooks’ room late on Saturday night is nuanced and layered. Again, some students find it difficult to interpret Crooks’ gleeful bullying of Lennie in any more subtle way than lying on one side of the Good/Bad dichotomy. The notion that this behaviour might give the reader some greater insight into his situation is a difficult idea to grasp for some and needs the same persistent, careful teaching. In recent years, given the time constraints of exam-based questions with limited time to prepare, the persistent, careful teaching of subtle interpretations has been hard to preserve. Easily packaged answers are the order of the day.

But back to the subject of this blog – the way my attitude to teaching the novel changed over the years. From the beginning, Steinbeck’s liberal use of the N word was uncomfortable. As the educated teacher, I rationalised this as being acceptable because of his clear intentions to expose injustices in his society. For him to do this as a white writer in the 1930’s in America seemed to me to be admirable and progressive. Nonetheless, I could not reasonably expect my classes to be aware of this and therefore spent a lot of time preparing the ground for the use of the word and the entirely positive reasons behind it. I was in effect trying to say, “Don’t worry guys! He’s on your side, and what’s more on your side from a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Let’s celebrate him.” It only worked because I had developed the trust of my classes and had made a big thing about injustice and racism in every other area of the stuff I taught. I had nailed my colours to the mast so that everyone knew the values that applied in my lessons.

I cringe when I look back on it now, and the tinge of white saviour complex it connotes. And cringe even more when I think how long that situation was maintained in my teaching as the status quo.

The next phase, probably at least ten years later, was to discuss the issue with each class as I always had, but then let them take a vote on it. If that seems now like passing the buck, it was done from a desire to give the students some respect and level of control. And that situation lasted for at least another ten years, (probably more). Each successive class had their own reaction to it. Every class came round to loving the book, with some taking longer than others to get the nuances under the surface. It was still doing all the things I wanted it to and it still had all the qualities I loved and valued, but steadily, growing in the back of my mind was an unease that wouldn’t go away.

Every time I said the word out loud, it felt like I was slapping my black students in the face. I was expecting them to silently endure disrespect and humiliation in the service of Literature. I justified it to myself on the same grounds that were used when the great statue debate emerged in the last few years. You know the stuff:

You can’t rewrite history. This happened, we can’t pretend it didn’t and we must simply explain it. To pull them down would be to airbrush history in the tradition of the Great Dictators down the ages. It’s just meaningless gesture politics, designed only to let people show off as “woker than thou”. More important to be actively ant-racist than to obsess about symbolism. Etc etc.

But of course, all of this dispassionate rationalising ignores the power of emotional reactions. How could I, a privileged old white guy, airily dismiss the concerns of the activists as gesture politics. I didn’t have historic crimes against my community paraded in front of me every day when I went to study or work, walking past a statue of some historic figure whose entire historic status is founded on the slave trade. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.

And I finally reached the same conclusion about Of Mice and Men. I continued to read the book to classes, explained the context and Steinbeck’s intentions, but this time talked about why I wasn’t going to use the word in question. Ironically, this took me right back to my days as an A level Literature student back in 1973 in Stockton -on-Tees. One of my teachers was an older woman, who was tremendously old fashioned and dull, dull, dull. (Don’t worry, her identity will not be revealed and I would have never dreamed of telling her). We found it hilarious that when teaching us The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and some of The Tales themselves) she would just miss entire words and phrases out when she read the text aloud. And the weird thing was she would never refer to it, or explain it or even acknowledge it. It was as if she had a different, more prudish, edition. And here I was, doing more or less the same thing. Although, to be fair, she was rather more concerned about depictions of farting and medieval rumpy pumpy, than racism.

So, I got there in the end. And it kind of worked. All of the good qualities of the novel were retained. And it was such an easy, obvious way of dealing with a problem that needed to be addressed, I can’t think why it took me so long to reach it. And I think back, to everyone I taught the book to, from 1982 onwards and I think about their feelings in my classroom when I so confidently said that word in front of them, over and over again.

I was quite a good English teacher. I took it seriously and wanted to open the eyes of my students. I wanted to introduce them to the power and beauty of Language and the power and beauty of Literature, regardless of who they were and what their background was. I have no doubt I made many mistakes on the way and I apologise for them, unreservedly. I tried my best but I got as many things wrong as I got right, I’m sure. The Of Mice and Men mistake was the biggest of them all and for that I am sincerely sorry. The campaign deserves all of our support and I wish it well.

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