I never thought that I would have the privilege of building a friendship with Professor Toni Morrison, but that is exactly what happened. It began in the unlikeliest of ways and blossomed over the years into a bond that offered me a glimpse into a part of the great writer that few know or discuss: her gifts as a teacher.
In the early 90s, I was meeting with fellow members of the Toni Morrison Society, a nonprofit literary group formed through the American Library Association, outside New York City and ended up sitting next to Morrison in a taxicab. We talked about her early career as a writer, and my career as a professor of literature and a high school English/language arts teacher. I happened to mention my father, and that he attended Texas Southern University. She remembered a Chadwick in one of the classes she taught there. My mouth fell open. I said, “Daddy’s name was Lon … ” She finished: “Londell.” She’d taught my dad! When she asked after him, I had to tell her he’d passed away when I was 10. I told her about my last visit with my father—a moment I don’t usually share.
The connection that began in that cab flourished over the years, evolving into a relationship that crossed state lines and touched dozens of my students. She would generously agree to be a long-distance guide, sage, and pen pal to two sets of students linked to me: the aspiring teachers in my graduate school courses at Harvard University, and the young teenagers they were student-teaching in middle school classrooms around Boston. None of these students would ever meet Morrison in person, but they would all be deeply affected by her guidance and insights.
Most assuredly an acclaimed editor, writer, thinker, and scholar, Morrison was also a focused and dedicated teacher, and her teacherly qualities make her a true model for us as educators. My former graduate students and I have not forgotten how Morrison never once declined to lend her teacher-voice and keen perspective to our work.
In my teaching-methods course in 1999, my students were beginning their student-teaching in the Boston area. Tasked with teaching Jazz, many were concerned about how to help young readers engage with and understand Morrison’s novel. Jazz is a wonderful challenge in language, genre mixture, and personification of the city—in essence, the novel captures the Great Migration, the rhythms of jazz, and the human experience scaffolded into a literary journey. For my student-teachers, this seemed to be an instructional Gordian’s knot.
Taking Up an Offer
As I thought about how to help them, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Morrison over lunch at her home in New Jersey. That day in the cab, she’d invited me and four other fellow members of the Toni Morrison Society to spend the day at her home with her. A highlight of that exceptional visit for me was a quiet and intense discussion she and I had about the appropriate grade levels for teachers to introduce her novels.
She asked me about The Bluest Eye, which she knew often appeared in 9th grade. Her focused and deep interest in curriculum, instruction, and audience still fascinates me. She was clear: “Ninth grade seems young to me for this novel. What do you think, Jocelyn?” I agreed, because 9th graders in the 1990s seemed more naïve and less inquiry-driven than today’s 9th grade students, who’ve been forged into skeptics and relentless inquirers by 9/11, the Great Recession, and social and economic upheavals. As I left Morrison that day, I understood how this brilliant writer, Nobel laureate, and profound thinker was equally attuned to education, curriculum, and the student experience.
Remembering this conversation, I wrote her an email, asking if she would help my student-teachers by responding to their middle school students’ written questions and comments about Jazz. She said yes. Neither of us knew then that this long-distance correspondence—Morrison from her longtime post at Princeton University, us from Boston and Cambridge—would add building blocks to the foundation of our relationship and extend to my other graduate students, present and future, and to young students in middle school classrooms.
I had never tried anything like this before, either as a high school teacher or college professor. I was hoping she could help our middle school students read and process a challenging, unique novel, write to a different audience—the author—and receive a rare gift: having a distinguished author actually read, reflect on, and respond to their questions.
I was also hoping Morrison could help my student-teachers raise their own expectations of what students can accomplish when they’re provided with more than one instructional pathway. We were most definitely in uncharted territory, but Morrison was curious and enthusiastic to help.
Guidance From a Legend
Over several weeks, the teacherly Morrison responded to students thoughtfully, earnestly, and with care. The middle school students were over the moon, especially because Morrison’s deliberate, authentic, personal written interaction made them feel visible, voiced, and privileged.
One student wrote that she didn’t “get Violet and the novel’s end about the bird, but I really like that Violet and Joe figured out how important they are to each other.” Morrison responded this way, thanking the student by name:
Thank you for your reading and comment. I thought that having the parrot almost disappear from Violet’s attention that she and Joe could start over. You know, rediscover what they had and could maybe have again. … You have made me think about the ending again. Thank you!
During another graduate seminar I taught, in 2003, we examined the social, cultural, and linguistic impact of the fiction and nonfiction works by Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. My graduate students and I drilled into the technique and language of each writer’s texts, exploring their novels’ intersections. Morrison corresponded with my students about her work for this class, too, sharing thoughtful responses to their questions about race, memory, violence, and identity.
One of my students had expressed reservations about teaching a text written by a black author, since teachers at her school had questioned what she could contribute, as a white woman. Morrison offered this insight on how people can find ways to see themselves in every text:
It can be helpful if the central question becomes one of projection: what if it were your father, or sister, or mother who was so treated. Not a ‘slave’ but the family member that you personally know. Furthermore, it is critical to discover how much of the stigma is encouraged, fostered, and taught.
In page after page of guidance and instruction, Morrison enabled my students to begin to understand their unique relationships to texts, and to see literature as an instructional window that can foment lifelong literacy.
My experience with Morrison soon led me to invite other writers I know for conversations with my seminar students—Piri Thomas, Luis J. Rodriguez, Rudolfo Anaya, for example. To this day, I continue this practice, and I encourage other teachers to reach out and find authors who are willing to help. Teachers can also use primary sources such as letters, interviews, and speeches to experience authors in other unique ways, further shaping and filling out the person and the writer.
An Enduring Legacy
While Morrison has physically left us, what remains is her entire monumental body of work—books, speeches and presentations, such as the 2016 Charles Norton Lectures at Harvard: “The Origin of Others: The Literature of Belonging,” where she once again allowed us all to hear and learn from her teacherly voice:
Don’t take no from your students. Do what I ask, and let’s have conversations about it. Allow students to experiment; liberate their imaginations. Open doors, let them in, give them permission, and then see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.
The students and teachers of the world are indeed indebted to you, Professor Morrison, with awe and profound thanks.