To the seventh graders in Mark Twain Intermediate School's program for extra-talented students, Huckleberry Finn was an alien. He could never be one of them.
He was incorrigible. They were considered model pupils.
He hated school; didn't see much use in book learnin'. They thrived on school. After all, they were classified as the brightest in their class.
But in Huck Finn's day, two of the youngsters in the gifted and talented program would have been called "niggers."
And that made those two 12-year-olds, Tracy Harper and Sandra Henderson, uneasy.
"Mama, guess what?" Tracy's mother recalled her daughter blurting out one afternoon last fall. "You are not going to believe this. We have to read this dumb book, and you should see some of the words."
At school, Tracy told her mother she heard some of the white kids giggling over the "words." At home, she'd call her friends on the telephone and they'd look up the "words" in the dictionary. They'd have long debates on just what "nigger" meant.
But Tracy said she could handle it.
"Mama, I can deal with it," she told her mother after the first few classroom discussions. "But why does it have to be taught that way?"
One of her school administrators, John H. Wallace, couldn't handle it. He said he heard a few complaints from students and remembered when he had read "Huck Finn" for the first time as a freshman in high school.
As a child, "I felt humiliated and embarrassed when I heard it read out loud in class," said Wallace. One of only two black youngsters in the class, he said, "I winced every time I heard the word 'nigger' in the book."
Now, at age 50, Wallace was outraged.
He called the book "racist trash." He said it was "poison" and "anti-American." And he launched a crusade against "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a book many other educators call a "literary classic," and a book written by Mark Twain, the author for whom the Fairfax County School was named.
"It's not that I don't like Huck Finn," said Wallace, in his second year as an administrator for a Fairfax County school. "I don't like what Huck Finn does to our black children. It depicts black people as untrustworthy, as less than human. It makes black children feel bad about themselves."
The newly formed school human relations committee--which Wallace chairs--took up the issue as its first cause. It recommended banishing the book from mandatory classroom reading lists, making it optional reading material on the library shelves.
A special book review committee, which has parents among its members, stood behind the human relations committee. And John Martin, in his first year as principal of Mark Twain Intermediate, backed the book review committee.
But at that point, the issue that had been simmering for weeks in the meeting rooms and hallways of the school exploded on the public scene.
"This is the equivalent of book burning," said Fairfax County School Board spokesman George F. Hamel.
The recommendation sparked a quick rebuke from county school officials, who vetoed the ban. Wallace, who originally said he would appeal that decision to the school superintendent, backed down last week. But, he said, the committee hasn't dropped the matter and is now preparing recommendations to tighten the administrative guidelines that the book should be discussed in the "proper instructional setting."
Mark Twain school officials say they think their fight will prompt teachers throughout the county to weigh more carefully the use of controversial books in the classroom.
But the Fairfax County school system and Mark Twain school officials have been stung hard by the controversy. The school has been targeted by hate mail, its officials ridiculed and criticized.
From the controversy, however, has emerged the tale of a one-man crusade that gathered steam in one school, then fizzled when it popped open in public.
It began in the seventh-grade classrooms of Mark Twain's program for academically talented students. The two teachers in the program set up a curriculum integrating history, social issues and literature. Students were to read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in English class while they studied the pre-Civil War era and slavery in history class.
The theme of the year-long program was "young people dealing with real-life problems," said Principal Martin.
Many parents--black and white--raved about the program. They praised the dedication and creativity of the two teachers and said they liked the program's innovative approach to learning.
"That class does a lot of cultural activities," said Rosa Harper, whose daughter Tracy is one of two black children in the 43-student honors course. "I like it. They get exposed to lots of things."
But there was one exposure that two black mothers, Rosa Harper and Carmella Henderson, didn't count on.
"My child comes home, not upset, but concerned that she had to answer a question on a test about the book by using the word 'nigger' to describe a black character in the book," said Harper. "I don't see why the book had to be a requirement."
Wallace argues that seventh graders, even intellectually gifted ones, are too young to grasp the full context of the book. "Most black children can't get past the word 'nigger,' " he said.
Some of the youngsters who read the book in class said Wallace may not be giving them enough credit.
"I felt it did put down blacks," said 12-year-old Sandra Henderson. "I was somewhat offended, but I understood the time it was set in. But I really didn't like some parts of it."
But the human relations committee's study of the book's effect on the children reading it was sparked more by Wallace's own bitterness than by the complaints from the parents, most of which weren't voiced until the study was well under way, according to parents who contacted the school.
Wallace has made a career of digging out racism in books and educational curricula. He said he was successful in getting "Huck Finn" taken off the mandatory reading list in his son's high school in Chicago 10 years ago. He also spent six years working for Howard University's Institute of Educational Policy studying the status and needs of blacks and other minorities in higher education.
He compares himself to Martin Luther King as a man who has found a "reason to live."
"I don't want a single black youngster subjected to reading this out loud," he said.
And when a telephone caller sent her support, he jumped on the soapbox like a fiery preacher: "Maybe someday we'll free up all these little children. Children should be proud of themselves, no matter what they are."
He spikes his conversation with quotes from philosophers and black activists. And he ticks off his academic credentials--a master's degree in educational psychology and work toward a doctorate--to disprove allegations by some people who he said have questioned his intelligence.
"Others feel that if you don't think this is great literature, then you're ignorant," Wallace grumbled. "Those people may understand literature, but they don't understand children. I understand the children."