Despite Language Controversy, Huck Finn Connected with Gadsden County High Schoolers

Aug 8, 2019

A 135-year old classic American novel, written by one of the nation’s greatest writers, is now on the banned book list in many U.S. high schools. But one local teacher has persisted in teaching that book in his school, despite all the controversy.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) with his longtime friend, John T. Lewis
Credit pbs.org

It seems that teacher, John Nogowski, has more than a little in common with his personal hero Mark Twain. Twain got his literary start as a newspaper reporter. So did Nogowski, most recently as sportswriter for the Tallahassee Democrat. But Nogowski gave up writing for teaching. And what he’s been teaching at Gadsden County High School is Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“You know, it’s a book about racial harmony and we don’t have that," Nogowski mused. "It’s better certainly than it was when I was a kid, but you see what’s going on with the president right now. And especially at our school. I just thought it was important to teach it and I thought I might get some flack about it, which eventually I did, but I did get to teach it for 7 years and I think it was a transformative book for a lot of kids.”

The reason so few teachers dare introduce the work to their students, Nogowski opined, is a single word that appears throughout the book.

“Some people just because of the ‘N word’ in it, they just throw up a wall and go, ‘I’m not even going to read that!’ Like I mentioned in the book, the lady who stopped me and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that, although I’ve never read it.’ Well that’s just stupid! And I understand. It’s an explosive word and I hate it. I don’t let it happen in my classroom and if I hear it in the hallway I stop kids from saying it. But we certainly didn’t jump right into it. We spent two days talking about that word.”

It’s a controversy that Nogowski pointed out is relatively recent and concerns a term that is not all that unknown to his students in a more modern context.

“When the book came out, nobody said a word about it. Not a single word was even uttered about the ‘N word’ until the 50s and 60s. And now in hip-hop songs you hear it all the time and they don’t have a problem with that.”

And Huck Finn is much more than just one word, insisted Nogowski. Twain used Huck’s tale to condemn the racism of his own day - a revolutionary move at the time. The African-American character “Jim,” who’s escaping slavery, is shown as the story’s bravest and most noble person when he sets aside his own self-interest to aid Tom Sawyer, even though Sawyer has treated Jim in dismissive fashion.

“A doctor comes to take care of Tom, who’s delirious. He needs help and who comes out of the wood but Jim, knowing this is going to put him right back into slavery again and all the things that he worked to get to be free and his humanity takes over. It’s a touching scene!”

A scene and a story that Nogowski said deeply resonated with his students in totally positive ways

. “Some of the things the kids said, like ‘Huck’s the brother I never had.’ If you’re Mark Twain, you gotta go, ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ Some of the kids’ writing was lifted to a completely different level because they were so involved with the book.”

But while Nogowski said his students were appreciative, it was some of the adults who took issue with the book and especially its language.

“You know it’s such an important book and it took so much courage to write it. I just wanted to share that with the kids and fortunately, I had an administration that was okay with it. I remember one of the principals said, ‘Some of the kids are uncomfortable with it,’ and she said, ‘So? You think they’re going to go out into the world and not be uncomfortable sometimes about the way they’re treated?’ and I said, ‘That’s exactly my point!’” 

So Nogowski has written his own book, documenting and explaining his use of Huck Finn as a potent learning tool in the hopes other educators might follow his example.

“I think so many teachers are afraid and there are parents who complain and school boards that don’t get it.” 

For his part, Nogowski, despite the opposition  mostly born of misunderstanding,  hoped to persist in making Mark Twain’s great American masterwork an integral part of his teaching.

“Here’s an old white teacher teaching at a black school a controversial book, but an important book and one that I’d wish more people would give an opportunity to.”

If you haven’t picked up Twain’s crackling good tale in a while, now might be a good time to renew that acquaintance. And if you’d like to check out Nogowski’s “Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom,” it’s available on Amazon.