It happened during a discussion of the novel “Huckleberry Finn,” the book’s frequent use of the most common racial epithet, and whether the Mark Twain classic should be taught in schools.
Destinee Wornum’s English teacher walked from the front of the classroom and stopped at the 15-year-old’s desk, and then asked: “What’s up my nigger?”
The classroom fell silent, waiting for a stunned Wornum to respond.
Wornum, then a sophomore at Boston Latin School, hadn’t expected her teacher to single her out.
“I didn’t know what to say,” said Wornum, who is black, her voice cracking as she recalled the October 2015 incident. “I was uncomfortable and embarrassed.”
The encounter is one of several at Boston Latin to become public this year following student complaints of racism, and was included in a federal complaint alleging civil rights violations at the elite exam school. Earlier this month, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said her office would investigate. In February, a school department investigation found that Latin School administrators properly handled six race-based incidents but mishandled a seventh in which a student was threatened with lynching.
Similar to that student, who was threatened in 2014, Wornum did not initially tell her mother about the incident. When Rosalind Wornum learned about it in January, she was irate, she said. She met with headmaster Lynn Mooney Teta on Wednesday to discuss the incident.
Rosalind Wornum said Teta told her that the Office of Equity is investigating the incident and encouraged her to speak with them; the office first reached out to the Wornums last month.
Teta said she has not talked to the teacher about the incident, but described the incident as “unacceptable,” according to Rosalind Wornum.
A spokesman for Boston schools would not comment on what was discussed at the meeting but said that “Boston Public Schools is committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all students. The Office of Equity is committed to investigating any incident of racism or bias it receives.”
Rosalind Wornum said in a recent interview at the family’s Dorchester home that she remembers her daughter coming home from school upset in the fall, but the girl refused to say what was bothering her. She said only that she hated the school and wanted to be left alone.
“I honestly didn’t know how to handle it because it was like, how do I approach my adult teacher on a situation like this? What would that mean for my grade? What would it mean for my future at BLS?” Destinee Wornum said.
“I was in fear of what could happen because it’s like I’m a girl from Dorchester and I ought to be grateful because I go to BLS. That’s the way that they make it seem.”
The teenager tried to move on, she says, but was reminded of the incident in January when Boston Latin students Kylie Webster-Cazeau and Meggie Noel launched a social media campaign publicly denouncing racism at the school and published a YouTube video.
‘I was in fear of what could happen because it’s like I’m a girl from Dorchester and I ought to be grateful because I go to BLS.’
“I was more worried back then that I would be affected,” said Destinee Wornum, now 16. “Other people who are opening up about their situations made me feel safer about opening up. . . . I’m not the only one, [and] it’s OK for me to tell my situation.”
Wornum attended a forum in January where students were asked to write a report detailing their experiences with racism at the school.
At the meeting Wednesday, Teta told Rosalind Wornum that she learned about the incident from the report Destinee had filled out, the mother said.
In light of the recent attention on race-based incidents at the school, many civil rights groups and black leaders have called for the headmaster to resign.
The Wornums told Teta during the meeting they want the teacher to apologize, and Rosalind Wornum believes the teacher should be fired.
“What was she expecting from making that statement to her?” Rosalind Wornum, 49, said in a recent interview. “Is it standard process in addressing the book? That [statement] was cultural incompetence.”
She said she worries that not reprimanding the teacher sets a bad example.
“In [Teta] allowing all of this to go on gives the white students more reason to act out because they see it’s OK,” Rosalind Wornum said. “They see she’s not doing anything about it.”
Wornum says there should be a more effective way to have a conversation about the book.
“I feel like if she wanted to make a point about the n-word, there’s always a different way to go about it,” said Destinee Wornum. “She didn’t have to direct it to me and make me feel uncomfortable like that.”
Schools nationwide have struggled with how to discuss “Huckleberry Finn,” but former Harvard professor Jocelyn Chadwick, now vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English, called the teacher’s remark “outrageous.”
“Students don’t like to be singled out,” she said. “They don’t want any teachers to look at them like they have the perpetual answers because they’re black.”
Destinee Wornum said there should be policy changes that would lead to consequences, not only for students who make racially offensive remarks, but for teachers as well. Wornum said she will never forget how her teacher’s remark made her feel.
“I don’t think teachers realize they have a big impact on our lives and our future,” she said.
“The slightest thing that you say can stick with a student for the rest of their life, whether it is positive or negative.”Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.