Teacher seeks a few novel ideas at workshop

July 09, 2005|By Gregory Kane

AS BIRTHDAY presents go, the one Tonya Wells got when she turned the big two-four probably couldn't have been better than this.

Today Wells is at Northern Kentucky University, where she'll be through July 17 attending the Toni Morrison Writing Workshop. And Wells loves Toni Morrison's novels.

"I've loved Toni Morrison since high school," Wells said. What better place for a lover of Toni Morrison to be than at a workshop named for the writer?

And what better time for Wells to attend than one day after her birthday? She turned 24 yesterday.

That high school where Wells first became familiar with the works of Toni Morrison would be one (ahem!) Baltimore City College, from which Wells graduated in 1999. It was a family thing for Wells. Her dad and an uncle graduated from City College in the late 1960s.

Wells is also a member of the Toni Morrison Society, a group that follows the works of America's Nobel Prize for Literature winner and looks at how they can be taught in high schools. Teaching Morrison's works isn't just a wish for Wells.

It's her job.

Well, not exactly. Wells just completed her first year of teaching ninth-grade English at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. (Morrison's works aren't taught to ninth-graders.) The year before that, she taught ninth-grade English at Parkdale High School in Prince George's County. Wells was a student teacher at Parkdale when she did her undergrad work at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she double-majored in English and secondary education.

"I feel as though I can connect to the kids, being a younger person," Wells said of her desire to teach.

Thanks a lot, Ms. Wells. Way to make a guy pushing 54 feel even older.

Hey, I'm only kidding. A little. Actually, we should bless the heart of - and possibly canonize - anyone who wants to teach in public schools these days. Wells might not be a teacher for long. She is taking classes to get a master's in business administration. But she wants to be effective for as long as she does teach. And the job, she said, requires much more than imparting knowledge.

"I'm a counselor," Wells said. "I parent the kids who don't get that from the home. I want to touch some lives while I'm here."

One of the ways she hopes to touch them is through literature, specifically the works of her literary heroine.

"I hope to get a deeper look at the Toni Morrison novels," Wells said of the reason she's attending the workshop. One of those novels will no doubt be Wells' favorite Morrison work: The Bluest Eye.

"The main character [Pecola Breedlove] is faced with interracial self-hatred," Wells said, "which a lot of girls in 2005 are going through right now."


This is 2005. Do issues of racial self-hatred and self-esteem still bother some black Americans?

I guess I'm aghast because my two children are in their early 30s. My biggest problem when they were teens was keeping a crowbar handy to pry their lips off every mirror in the house.

And my daughter's 5-year-old daughter doesn't have a problem with low self-esteem. Quite the contrary, the girl has far too much of it. She could bottle the excess and get rich selling it at even bargain-basement prices.

Still, Wells feels it's true.

"I used to see a lot of myself in Pecola," Wells said.

Now there is word that the intra-racial issue of light-skinned blacks versus dark-skinned blacks is alive and well as ever. I saw one television special that alleged that some rap video directors prefer light-skinned hoochie dancers to dark-skinned ones.

But hey, they're rap video directors. I expect them to be color-struck idiots.

And they're not alone, according to Wells. The Bluest Eye was first published in 1970. Wells feels its theme is as pertinent today as it was then.

"Pecola yearns for blue eyes," Wells said. "She thinks her eyes are ugly and are not good enough. This is self-destructive for Pecola because Pecola wants to change her self-image."

Wells can't use The Bluest Eye in her ninth-grade curriculum, which calls for students to read Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird and A House on Mango Street by Hispanic author Sandra Cisneros. But she uses the theme of The Bluest Eye to impart a lesson to her students about self-image.

"I teach the students it does not matter what you look like," Wells said. "Don't use that as an excuse to settle for mediocrity."

That sounds like a lesson Wells has learned herself, along with the advice she learned from her dad, which she insisted make it into this column.

"Stay positive and remain focused."

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