Toni Morrison changed me as a reader. Hard books can do that for your students, too

What happens when you expect students to be excellent readers—and hold them to that expectation? What happens when you expose students to texts with complex themes that deal with hard topics?

They become readers who are challenged, transformed, frustrated, invigorated, and excited by good writing. They become excellent readers who read long after they’ve left your classroom, who learn something new about themselves and the world every time they encounter a book. They become people who are empathetic and understand hard topics are complex. They learn how to talk about difficult things.

The day I met Toni Morrison

I was introduced to Toni Morrison in eighth grade by two friends who told me they’d read a book by her and thought it was great. An avid reader, I picked it up, then wrestled and muscled my way through. Quite honestly, I only forced my eyes to “read” to the last page because I was competitive and could not stand the thought that my friends had read a book that I couldn’t.

The book was The Bluest Eye. Beyond the basic plot, I understood very little.

I didn’t understand Pecola Breedlove’s world; she, and it, were so foreign to me. I didn’t understand flashbacks and had never read stream of consciousness. I didn’t understand Pauline or Cholly or how Claudia (who shared a name with my favorite Baby-Sitters Club character) could be on one page but not the next. These secondary characters were white noise cluttering up the page.

Morrison taught us how to see the world around us differently, how to have empathy for people living lives different from our own.

I felt like a failure, but I wanted to feel like a champion. My sheer determination had pushed me through the text, one complex word, sentence, and thought at a time. I remember puffing my whole chest out with pride because I knew I’d just read the most adult book I’d ever been exposed to. Maybe I didn’t understand every small detail (or even most of the big ones), but I knew I had “read” something big, important, and meaningful.

Giving myself a bigger challenge

That summer, the bridge between tween and young adult, never-been-kissed and first kiss, idolizing my mom and being mad that she suddenly didn’t understand me, I felt bold and decided that I was going to be a real high school reader. So, I went back to Morrison, jumped in the deep end, and picked up Beloved.

I muscled my way through that book, too. I was buoyed by having finished The Bluest Eye and earning the title of highest number of books read in my middle school (101 exactly, inching out a last-minute victory over a guy named Guy). I was a seasoned Morrison reader and (almost) a woman, I told myself.

I understood even less of Beloved. I felt like even more of a failure. I had never met a book that bested and conquered me, a book whose words and meaning did not open up to me and reveal their secrets at my command. I was angry at it for being smarter than me. But, much like with The Bluest Eye, I was determined to figure it out. It took me until the end of high school to get there.

The power of time—and rereading 

In tenth grade, we read The Bluest Eye in English class. Having “read” it once, I could expend my energy  on the whys: Why was Cholly as awful as he was? Why did Pecola want—need—blue eyes? Why was Pauline distressed? Why was Claudia in the book at all? Why did the words blend across time and space without giving the reader any time to catch her breath and hold on? Why did the time move, disrupting my understanding of linear narratives? Why did a metaphor extend for chapters, disappearing and reappearing like sleight-of-hand tricks?

The Bluest Eye was one of few books we read in school that centered on Black girls’ and women’s voices.

The language and structure of the book were hard, but so were the topics: The powerful messages Black children get about whiteness and how that can color how they see themselves. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The value of female voices. The Bluest Eye was one of few books we read in school that centered on Black girls’ and women’s voices, and though I couldn’t wholly relate to the story, it let me know there was space in the literary world for a range of Black women to, well, be. Even more important, I know now, is that the boys in my class got new ways to see Black girls and women beyond their families, their friends, and the media.

My teacher, Ms. Tobin, demanded greatness. Her unwavering expectations that we would read the novel made it clear that she believed we could comprehend it, make connections with it, unpack it, analyze it. She layered her questions and discussions in a way that brought us from a fear of Morrison to Morrison invaders, readers who charted their way across the book’s landscape, exploring, questioning, trekking forward even when we had no idea where we were. We were fifteen years old.

I was one of few kids in my English class who had read The Bluest Eye before, and I remember feeling like a leader, watching my classmates struggle as I had not that many years before and being proud that I could answer some of the questions. I felt smart.

Then, in AP literature senior year, we read Beloved with Ms. Tobin. Though I had two of Morrison’s novels under my belt (I read Song of Solomon in tenth grade), I began Beloved with trepidation. Beloved was my whale, my marlin. I was sure I would be the dumbest reader in the class. It took a teacher to unlock the book’s most important secret, give me the “Aha!” moment that knocked me off my metaphorical feet: the title character, Beloved, was a ghost. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t even pick up on the most important aspect of the book: the protagonist was a specter, a phantasm.

In that twelfth grade reading, the book slowly gave me keys, one at a time, allowing me to unlock some of her secrets. The entire time, Ms. Tobin addressed us like readers, like scholars, like students who were going to be English majors at university. She expected us to critically, closely, and deeply read complex text well enough to have a robust discussion about it and write a critical analysis. And that is what we did. (In case you were wondering, I got an A on Ms. Tobin’s literary analysis paper on Beloved.)

Difficult topics are worth it

Like most of Toni Morrison’s books, Beloved faces hard topics and themes head on, namely through the main character’s decision to choose between slavery or death for her children. Largely thought to be modeled loosely after Margaret Garner’s story, Beloved exposed my classmates and me to a rawness of human emotion and emotional turmoil that none of us had ever, or would likely ever, experience. Beloved told one slice of America’s slave story in a completely new way for us: by centering the voice of the enslaved woman, forcing us to be in her thoughts and space while she navigated ethical and moral problems with no easy answers. This helped us learn to think with more nuance.

Let your students find power in the success of reading a hard text.

Beloved resists binary thinking because every conflict and character is complex and they build on each other. The reader has no choice but to wrestle with ideas and the character’s decisions, to see ethics crashing into each other, over and over again. Morrison taught us how to see the world around us differently, how to have empathy for people living lives different from our own.

When I got to the University of Michigan, I encountered Beloved yet again when I decided to enroll in a junior-level English seminar my second semester of freshman year. I was the greenest student there. Neither intimidated nor deterred, I attended weekly and sat in the front. Everyone knew my name. If you know anything about me, you already know I participated hard: heart of a lion, rolling with the big dogs. Beloved was on the syllabus (of course). It was the first book (of course). This time, I felt like an expert.

I remember being not only the youngest student, but also the only Black student. I don’t recall all the discussions, but I am glad a class of primarily middle class, non-Black students had the opportunity to read about an enslaved Black woman struggling with how best to protect her children while slave catchers were at her heels with a Black student at their side. I’m glad they faced the ongoing emotional turmoil she experienced after and the range of humanness the Black characters exhibited with me as their classmate.

Known for complex characters, one beauty of Morrison’s writings is that her stories actively resist tropes of Black life that own the bulk of media real estate. Instead, she shows Black people as whole people, living whole lives that resist distillation into “thug” or “church girl.” I needed to see more than one-dimensional characters because those were the characters that reflected the lives of me and my friends and family: complex, round, complicated, nuanced.

A good book is a puzzle you’re always solving (and that’s a good thing)

Twenty-five years later, I have read Beloved more than any other book. I still have my original copy, notes like hieroglyphics in the margins that extend back to that first reading. I can see the evolution of my thoughts from read to read, young adult to woman. I read it last in 2020 and it took me over two months. I examined each word, tasted it slowly, let it settle gently in my mind, finding its place with the other words, forming new connections and relationships. Comprehension.

[Hard texts are] a big part of how we all learn to understand the world and treat everyone we encounter with empathy, kindness, and, yes, even love.

As an adult, I’ve used every part of myself as a reader to teach The Bluest Eye and Beloved to wide-eyed, confused high schoolers. I have watched them struggle and held their hands, never doubting that I could keep the bar high and have them join me there. We have talked about the hard language and the difficult topics, navigated complicated questions, and resisted the temptation to reduce characters to merely “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.”

Even after all these years, I still don’t understand Beloved. Not completely. Yes, I can tell you the plot and the names of all the major characters. I can tell you the setting and discuss how the themes are developed. But Beloved, like all of Morrison’s books, is a symphony laid bare on a page, each read as unique as the last one, because you are a different person each time you come to it. You understand trauma differently at 15 than you do at 25 than you do at 33 than you do at 41. You are different, and Beloved—just like other great works of literature—is kind enough to give you what you need each time you read it.

I would never have had the journey I’ve had with Toni Morrison without my high school teachers. They expected me to read the book and created space for me to do so. My teachers asked thought-provoking, text-dependent questions that leaned into the heart of each novel. They asked moral and ethical questions and pointed us back to the book to justify and challenge our beliefs. They helped me and my classmates identify metaphors and deconstruct their myriad meanings. They pointed out grammatical and syntactical idiosyncrasies and challenged us to figure out what they meant (why would Morrison put a period there? What does this extremely long sentence do to your sense of time and space?). They dared us to bring our own green critical analyses. In summation: they taught us to read, to think, to feel.

Push your students. They deserve it

Give your students the hard text. The juicy text. The confusing text. The text with the complex, hard topics and themes. The text you have to fight through because the payoff is worth it. The text they will still talk about 25 years later. The text that moves them from “I had to read” to “I could not not read.” The text that you’re not quite sure you totally understand yourself.

Let students struggle. Let them be confused. Teach a text in a way that lets kids explore lots of potential meanings and provide guardrails that bring them back in. Let your students find power in the success of reading a hard text, so that next time they have the earned confidence they need. Complex tests are how we move students into a space where they, too, can puff out their chests with pride at having conquered “the hard book.” They’re a big part of how we all learn to understand the world and treat everyone we encounter with empathy, kindness, and, yes, even love.

On your born day, Ms. Morrison, I am grateful that I get to experience your brilliance. Thank you for gifting us. Thank you for teaching me (and my peers) how to be critical readers.

Toni Morrison. Teacher. Writer. Wonder. Genius.

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