NEWFANE — “Of Mice and Men,” the popular novella by John Steinbeck, depicts George and Lenny, two ranch hands who dream of owning their own land. Newfane High School is finding the teaching of the book has led to a dilemma that its Depression-era characters may never have guessed.
Student Madison Woodruff, 16, is speaking out against the racist and sexist tropes held within the board of education-approved novella. In addition to the use of racial slurs — read aloud by the instructor in class — Woodruff takes offense to the one-dimensional portrayals of Black and female characters. The main female character isn’t even given a name, Woodruff observed.
“My main concern is that kids are feeling uncomfortable, and I feel uncomfortable, and I feel if you’re reading a book in school, where school is supposed to be a safe place, you can’t make kids feel uncomfortable because of a book we’re reading,” she said.
High School Principal Dan Bedette said that despite the attack on his school’s curriculum, he’s proud of Madison and encouraged her and like-minded students to come forward with their concerns.
“I just want to say I’m really proud of her for advocating for what she believes in. I think it’s really important,” Bedette said. “First and foremost, we need to address the needs of our students, so we’ve been trying to do that.”
Bedette said the school in no way condones racist or bigoted behavior from its students — and also that literature is a way to “confront” bigotry.
“That’s our intent when we read works like that,” he said. “I spoke to the head of the English Department, we scheduled a meeting for all of our English teachers and our counselor, and we’re going to answer that question, right up to, ‘Should we continue to read a book like that?’ “
Woodruff said while she does not expect any change, she has been raised to speak up on behalf of those whose feelings would not otherwise be known.
Teaching Steinbeck’s book “is not fair to people who are uncomfortable with racism. It’s not OK for people who are uncomfortable with being sexist,” she said. “As a school, it’s supposed to be a comfortable environment, and high school is already hard enough. Making people feel uncomfortable, as a teacher, who is supposed to be teaching us? That’s not OK.”
Bedette said issues like this need to be examined, and while he can’t promise anything, he felt that Woodruff did the right thing bringing her concerns to his attention.
“She’s advocating for it, and there were a couple of other students who were impacted by it that we know of, and why not take a look at that?” Bedette said. “I think it’s timely.”
Administrators at a high school in Minnesota halted the teaching of the 1937 novella about a month ago after receiving similar complaints, according to the Star Tribune.