This is another response to the Professor Bott/LDS Newsroom debacle. You've been warned:
Every once in a while, the cosmos blesses teacher with a wonderful student. These students make your day better simply by existing. They say “thank you” at the end of each day. Your heart leaps every time he or she raises their hand, because their comments consistently validate your belief that you are accomplishing something of worth. You remember that student for years.
For me, Sam is my student. I unabashedly love him in a way only English teachers can love a 17 year old boy. (That means I love him in a completely appropriate way with clear boundaries rooted in a desire for him to succeed academically.) I like that he thinks before raising his hand. I appreciate the way he incorporates his beliefs and thoughts into his reactions to the text. Sometimes he speaks in a way that makes me realize the characters in the novels are real to him. I suspect he genuinely cared about Huck Finn.
He cared about Huck Finn, and I've only seen the mild-mannered Sam remotely angry once: during our discussions on racism and culture in Huck Finn. He was horrified by Tom’s unnecessarily cruel treatment of Jim. He couldn’t understand how Tom could treat Jim like a plaything, prolonging his slavery for the sake of “adventure.” Later, without any guidance from me, Sam pointed out the callousness of Huck’s answer when Huck makes up a story about a steamboat accident. Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt, to which Huck remarks “No, just a n_______r.”
Maybe the racism in Huck Finn horrified Sam because, according to Brigham Young, he "wears the mark of Cain." But I think Sam’s horror stemmed at least in equal part from Sam’s sense of personal integrity. Sam is a good and kind person, and the truly good and kind tend to be horrified by little things like injustice.
I don’t even mind when Sam reads his scriptures during SSR (at the beginning of class, students are allowed to read a book of their choice for ten minutes,) even when he is behind on the assigned reading. I don’t mind, and despite some major cynicism towards the LDS church, I do wonder if that all that scripture reading helped create my kind a thoughtful student. My heart breaks a little thinking that, because it forces me to ask myself why it didn’t work for me? If Mormonism helped make Sam the kind of person who cares about the well-being of others, even fictional characters, why can’t it work for me?
I don’t know when Sam’s family joined the church. I wonder when his father received the priesthood, and if his grandfather died waiting. I wonder if my student who reads Preach My Gospel despite being two years away from serving a mission is familiar with our history of racism and discrimination. Does he know that the school he dreams of attending is named after a man who supported slavery because he believed Blacks were cursed? Is he aware that he may take a religion class from a teacher (Professor Bott) who promotes a “discriminatory” God, a God who withholds blessings because Blacks were “fence-sitters” in the pre-existence? I look at Sam’s heavily annotated triple combination and recoil at the idea of anyone telling this bright and thoughtful student that his testimony just isn’t enough, or wouldn’t have been enough 34 years ago. I think of Huck telling Aunt Sally that no one got hurt.
Of course, in light of the Professor Bott’s comments, the LDS church is quick to remind us (via statement from the vague and mysterious newsroom,) that “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine.” Great. We don’t know why Sam’s testimony didn’t matter 34 for years ago, but it does now.
Of course I am pleased that the LDS church made a clear statement against Professor Bott’s statements: “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” But I don’t know if a 196 word statement claiming only partial responsibility for generations of discrimination is enough. When Sam meets his first Mormon Bigot (because he will,) how will a “statement issued by the LDS Newsroom” fare against the words of a prophet like Brigham Young, or McConkie, or Kimball?
Like many LDS bloggers and writers, (Joanna Brooks, Jana Reiss,) I want more than a Newsroom statement. I want an apology, I want a sincere asking for forgiveness for the pain our practices caused, and will continue to cause if we allow racism to die a slowly anesthetized death from The Newsroom. I want a death blow issued by President Monson, over the pulpit, in Conference. I want something that Sam can hold onto when he serves his inevitable mission and someone incredulously asks him why he serves a church that barely recognizes their racist heritage.
I want it for Sam, but I’ll confess, I want it for me too. Someday my great-great grand-daughter may question why her ancestor stayed connected to a church that told her that her worth lies solely in being “the wife and mother of the children of a worthy holder of the priesthood,” (note that this implies that I am mother to his children, not ours,) while her husband receives not only the opportunity to be a parent, but the power to “speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” When that day comes, I’m sincerely hoping that there is more than a Newsroom quote to calm her heart. I’m hoping that there will be more than benevolently sexist language about women being “worshipped” instead of being equal. I’m hoping that someday my grand-children, whatever their race or their gender, will be seen as truly equal to their white male counterparts.
But what I’ve learned, not only from Sam, but from Professor Bott and The Newsroom, is to recognize that the tiny part of me that wants to make Mormonism work. I want it to work for me. I want it to work for me on some level that I don’t understand.
I’m just not sure it can. I’m not sure I can have a testimony of The Newsroom when my testimony of the gospel itself seems questionable. I don’t want to live like my ancestors, or Sam’s ancestors, waiting for the change and apology that may never arrive. It is good that we are condemning racism, it is good that we see men and women as equal partners. But we need to apologize for racism, and we need to recognize that it is impossible to be equal when one person “presides” over the other.
It is good. We are on the right track. But it is enough?