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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

A Transformational Tradition: Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved
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Amy Kates

While reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a community has been a tradition for St. Andrew’s VI Form students for decades, each new rising senior class experiences the book—and the resulting conversations and broadened perspectives—differently.
“One of the exciting things about teaching a rich and complex novel like Beloved to seniors is that the students are eager to engage in the intellectually adventurous critical thinking that the novel requires,” says Dr. Martha Pitts, one of the English faculty members involved with the annual Beloved project. “A potential challenge in teaching a novel like Beloved is addressing potential student responses about reading another book about Black trauma and the trials and tribulations of ‘the Black experience’ during slavery. But Beloved is not about slavery. It’s about love, kinship with other human beings, choice and accountability; ownership of property, self, and others; individual action versus communal action. It is ultimately about what it means to live a meaningful life post-slavery.” 
For seniors Natalie Biden ’23, Emma Tang ’23, and Josie Pitt ’23, Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a family of former slaves living in post-Civil War Cincinnati transcended the classroom.
“I feel like most nights on dorm, when we could have been talking about anything, we were all talking about Beloved,” says Biden. “We’d gather in someone’s room and we’d either debate or just talk about it. It came up a lot at dinner. It was such a St. Andrew’s thing to be doing. It brought our grade together in a special way.”
That the noise around each year’s VI Form reading of Beloved trickles down to underformers is a testament to the strength of the tradition’s experience.
“I was a bit wary to begin reading it because it's so hyped every single year. Each senior is like, ‘I'm reading Beloved right now.’ And all the underformers are like, ‘What is this Beloved book?’” says Pitt. “Then I started reading it. Every sentence is so important that by the end, it is just so relevant. It is still so deep and meaningful today.”
The trio echoes one sentiment in particular: at times, having class discussion about the book, which delves into uncomfortable territory, was difficult.
“You had to really opt-in,” says Pitt. “I think St. Andrew’s is one of the best places to discuss a book like Beloved. It’s such an essential text because it gives the reader time to become vulnerable, and gives our class time to open up. It is heavy and just expands as you read. This is a place where we’re really asked to be authentic and vulnerable about how we feel about texts.”
Not that that vulnerability was an easy place to arrive.
“At first it was pretty awkward and hard to talk about,” Tang says. “But as we proceeded, the book really pushed us to have meaningful discussions. Everybody has their own past and background, and for some people, it may be harder to talk about this book than for others. But we really started to verbalize a lot of the feelings we had.”

Pitt still remembers the vibe in her classroom days after the first reading. “It was like, ‘Boom, okay, talk about it,’” she says. “But it was silence! But with each progressive reading, we were able to really get into the text. That was with the help of Dr. Pitts, who is so incredible, but also it was all of our classmates’ decisions to open up and invite each other in.”
Adds Tang, “The reason why it's uncomfortable is severely important. I think that's what Toni Morrison's trying to say: We have to sit with this uncomfortableness and be reminded of it to have a path forward.”
All VI formers read Beloved together over the first few months of the school year. In-class discussions and essays follow, culminating an exhibition on each student’s Beloved final paper with two students and one English 4 faculty member. 
“In our exhibition, we talked about the controversy [around] the ban of Beloved. And the most important thing I took away was this idea of bearing witness to the past,” Pitt says. “We can’t overlook the importance of introducing teenagers to this important piece of American history. I don’t think that you can have a real education if a book like this is banned.”
While Biden notes that students refer to the “St. Andrew’s bubble” with a bit of an eye roll from time to time, in this case, the bubble was the perfect space within to explore the literature.
“Everyone brings their own context and past to something like this, but in this case, we all represent such different parts of our country,” she says. “Where we come from plays a part in how we understand things. It was so beneficial to be in a place where we are all from different towns with different backgrounds yet work together to interpret the foundation of our country, which is deeply intertwined with slavery. To come together in this moment, to learn and understand through each other's backgrounds and identities, was really critical.”

Pitts enjoys the immersive nature of reading along with her students. “We read the opening pages together in class, so that all of us, including myself, experience simultaneously the ways in which the opening is meant to destabilize the reader,” she says. “Morrison wants us to feel confused and displaced. … We become part of the novel’s community, and community is an important theme in the novel. Beloved’s narrative is neither linear or chronological, so the
community of the classroom became stronger as the students struggled together to understand how the narrative unfolded, piecing together details from previous pages and connecting them to other moments in the book. They were like literary detectives.”
One thing these detectives lit upon: Despite all, in the end, Beloved is about hope.
“I focused on the teenage daughter, Denver, for my final paper because no matter how much the novel is about—all the difficult stuff we’ve been talking about—Denver represents a transformation. She goes from this immature, not dependable character to someone who, at the end, is so strong and embodies this beautiful hope,” says Biden. “I think one of the major takeaways is that there's some parts of the past that you need to remember and bear witness to, but then there's some things that you need to forget to move on and have hope and love.”
As years go by, traditions tend to get tweaked and changed, visions realigned. These three seniors ask that that never happens.
“If St. Andrew’s took Beloved out of the curriculum, I would be so very sad,” says Pitt. “This is never a book that I’d independently choose. I am eternally grateful to Dr. Pitts, and all our English teachers, for introducing our class to this book for what it did for all of us.”

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