So when a student in my 11th grade English class handed in a paper entitled, “Getting High With Huck Finn,” I had no idea the paper’s subject—smoking marijuana—would shock me so profoundly.
I was startled because the student violated one of my rules: I do not accept papers written about sex or the use of drugs or alcohol. Nevertheless, I’m aware that many of my students regularly have sex, use drugs, and drink alcohol; I would be ignorant to think otherwise. A few of my students even suspect, as I do, that some of my teaching colleagues have drinking and drug problems.
During the week in October that schools devote to drug and alcohol awareness—“Red Ribbon Week”—many schoolteachers reluctantly pin the “Just Say No to Drugs” ribbons on their chests. The bright ribbons assert that they are drug-free, but they aren’t. I, too, have felt like a hypocrite as I warned my students about the ill effects of drugs while anticipating smoking my next cigarette.
Nonetheless, this paper—so brazen and premeditated in nature—sucker-punched me right in the teacher solar plexus. The class was reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I asked students to imagine taking Huck with them during an outing. They were to write down what Huck experiences in his own words or “voice.” The purpose was to help students become more familiar with Huck’s sometimes difficult language and speech patterns.
Most students drove Huck to the shopping mall. They described his reaction to automobiles: “That there buggy flew ‘long without horses. I cain’t wait to tell Tom Sawyer ‘bout this.” At the mall, Huck’s Missouri accent captured his astonishment at “all the knickknacks and jimcracks them mighty proper-looking people had fer sale.”
Some students transplanted Huck’s struggle with race relations into our modern world. “Time’s a’changed. I never seen blacks a’walkin’ arm ‘n’ arm with whites ‘afore. Seems a square and right practice nowadays.”
“Getting High With Huck Finn” simply described how the student and Huck bought some marijuana and smoked it.
I notified the assistant principal, called the student’s parents, and kept him after class for a talk. With a shaved head, an earring, and grossly oversized pants, the student lazily strolled into my office.
“Why did you choose to write about smoking marijuana?”
Without looking me in the eye, he replied, “Smoking pot is what I do on the weekends.”
“This is going to sound preachy,” I said, “but you need to know that smoking marijuana is dangerous. It can ruin your life.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t believe that. And you’re a hypocrite.”
I asked him to explain.
“Everyone does drugs, Mr. Smith. You have your caffeine; others have alcohol, cigarettes, drugs. It’s everywhere.”
He continued, “You taught us that Mark Twain used Huck Finn to show the hypocrisy of racism and greed back then. I know that writing about smoking pot is wrong, but it shows how hypocritical adults are today.”
“No one cares about me. Not you, not my parents, not this school. Everyone tells me to ‘just say no,’ when no one takes the time or money to back that up. Why should I say no? No one else is. I think Mark Twain would see this. And that’s how I see it. I’m not going to stop smoking pot.”
I said, “That still doesn’t justify using an illegal drug.”
“Mr. Smith, saving slaves was illegal, and Huck Finn broke that law. I’m breaking this law because I see no reason not to.”
More and more of my students decry the hypocrisy of a society that often turns the other cheek for adults while discouraging youth from doing drugs. It shocks me to realize that I am beginning to agree with them.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Getting High With Huck Finn