Gary K. Clabaugh. Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


I taught 7th grade in a small town middle school. And one day I was walking down the hall during a class change. A troublesome white kid from my homeroom was in front of me. He was walking with a crowd of kids. None of them noticed me.

Suddenly the annoying white kid spotted one of the few African-American girls attending our school. She was way at the other end of the hall. Yet as soon as he saw her, with no provocation whatsoever, this knucklehead shouted “Hey Nigger!” The kid’s around him snickered. She ignored him. But I impulsively kicked him in the ass.

I kicked him in anger and without forethought. His verbal abuse really pissed me off. I knew the girl and had always found her to be sweet and polite. There was no reason whatsoever for him doing this except to hurt her feelings; and to impress the simpletons who hung with him.

I was immediately horrified at what I had done. But I could hardly unkick him. So I  grabbed him by the seat of the pants and scruff of the neck, hustled him to the front office and deposited him none to gently on the bench reserved for malefactors. 

The principal emerged from his office wanting to know what was going on. I told him of the racist shout — leaving out the kick. Thankfully, the trouble-maker also failed to mention it. 

The principal thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention. And after I left I was told he used his oak two handed fraternity paddle to give the offender three or four good reasons to watch his mouth.  (Corporal punishment had not yet been outlawed in Pennsylvania.)

The principal was a big, strong fellow who boasted that no one ever came back for seconds. In any case, the young man was far more subdued after this lesson. As for me, I vowed to keep my temper.

I used to tell this war story to my pre-student teaching classes — cautioning them to keep their cool when provoked. I debated if I should say “nigger” in recounting what happened. I wondered, should I substitute something like, “he shouted the N word.” But that seemed patronizing, gutless and innacurate. This wasn’t Sunday School, after all, it was college. And our pre-student teaching students were preparing for the real world of the public schools. Moreover, I obviously was merely mentioning the word, not actually using it in a pejorative sense.

But herein lies the difficulty. Presumably well-meaning professors fail to recognize, or at least honor, the mention vs. use distinction. Instead, they take the stance that merely uttering the “N” word not only violates every African-American’s sensibilities; but offends all right-thinking people.

Balderdash! This sort of self-censorship is utterly inappropriate in an institution of higher education. Moreover, this is a teachable moment. To teach what? The mention/use distinction. But I’ll bet many of the professors who censor themselves fail to even recognize this distinction. They’re too busy paying obeisance to the politically correct requirement that professors should never offend, even if it requires them to give up thinking themselves.. 

A plague on these gutless wonders. When they fail to prod students and induce the discomfort that often accompanies learning, these professors are derelict in their duty. Professors aren’t supposed to genuflect to every injured feeling that thought might arouse. Discomfort is often a necessary precondition for thinking. And that’s what college students are supposed to be learning how to do in college — TO THINK!