“CHAPIN, S.C. — Mary Wood walked between the desks in her AP English Language and Composition classroom, handing out copies of the book she was already punished once for teaching.
Twenty-six students, all but two of them White, looked down at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a memoir that dissects what it means to be Black in America — and which drew calls for Wood’s firing when she tried to teach it last year in her mostly White, conservative town. Wood crossed to a lectern and placed her hands on either side of a turquoise notebook, open to two pages of bullet points explaining why she wanted to teach Coates’s work.
“That book that you guys have, it deals with racism,” she said on a recent Tuesday. “It’s going to be something with which you’re unfamiliar. That you need to spend time to research to fully understand.”
Wood stared at her class. She tried to make eye contact with every teenager. Anyone, she reminded herself, might be secretly recording her — or planning to report her.
Last spring, two students in that year’s English class had complained to the school board, alleging that “Between the World and Me,” which contends racism is embedded in American society, made them ashamed to be White. That implied Wood had violated a state proviso forbidding teachers from causing students “guilt, anguish or … psychological distress” on account of their race.
Within days, Lexington-Richland School District Five officials forced Wood to stop teaching the book; later, they sent her a letter of reprimand. When the episode went public, it became a flash point in the national culture wars over how to teach race, racism and history: Politicians and pundits on the left and right alternately praised and vilified Wood, as local parents, residents and the county Republican Party demanded her punishment or termination. Wood, 47, who grew up in Chapin and attended the school where she teaches, felt like an outsider in her hometown.
But this year, she was determined things would be different.
As school policy demanded, she had gained permission to teach “Between the World and Me” from Chapin High School’s new principal, a Black man. She had given every student’s parents a chance to review her curriculum. She had offered to opt out any child whose family disliked Coates’s book. And she had assigned a conservative voice pushing back on Coates.
Her revised version of the lesson, Wood believed, complied with both the letter and the spirit of South Carolina’s proviso. So now, despite everything, she was trying again.
She told her class they would spend the next few days listening to a recording of the book, while each student took notes. After that, they would conduct independent research to develop their own arguments. They could agree with Coates, disagree with him or land in the middle.
“Whatever conclusion you arrive at is yours,” she said. “Arguments are not supposed to be comfortable — but it’s certainly not supposed to be filled with guilt.”
She took a breath. “There is nothing,” she added, “to be ashamed of.”
She readied herself to press play.
Wood and Tess Pratt, her English Department chair and good friend, decided over the summer that Wood had to teach “Between the World and Me” again.
Both teachers knew that most teens in Chapin — a wealthy town where the median income is above $100,000 and large homes line pretty Lake Murray — had never read anything like Coates’s searing account of growing up Black in Baltimore. They had not spent their childhood, as Coates wrote he did, “naked … before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” They had never memorized “a list of prohibited blocks,” unsafe due to guns and violence.
Plus, both teachers believed the book, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is superbly written: a master class in the deployment of rhetorical devices. There was no better way to teach children how to formulate their own arguments, they thought.
“It teaches kids a different perspective, [it] teaches kids how to write well,” Wood said in an interview. And “it’s the right thing to do.”
Still, she worried she’d face more complaints. Or lose her job. If she was fired, Wood — a University of North Carolina at Wilmington graduate who started teaching in the late 2000s — would have trouble paying the mortgage on her house.
Then in early August, Wood found out her 16-year-old son, Summit, would be taking her AP Lang class. And she knew: She had to teach the book. Summit would be watching.
The year dawned with a new principal, Ed Davis, who requested meetings with every teacher. In her one-on-one, Wood brought up the book. Right away.
Davis, whom the district declined to make available for an interview, said Wood could teach the book, she recalled. But he had advice.
He asked her to picture Chicago’s Willis Tower, with its sky-high observation deck enclosed by a glass cage. Even people who are scared of heights know they are safe inside the glass, she remembered Davis saying. And that’s what teachers must provide: a casing that protects kids when they’re learning something difficult.
He also said that “the glass casing is for teachers,” Wood recalled. “As long as you’re teaching inside the standards and being professional, then you’re not doing the wrong thing.”
Superintendent Akil E. Ross wrote in a statement that the book has not been banned. Ross said teachers can assign material dealing with controversial topics, including Coates’s book, so long as they “expose students to all sides … in a fair and unbiased manner” and adhere to “content standards.”
Wood clung to the standards throughout the fall. She confined class discussion to the books she was teaching. She made fewer jokes.
Partly, she was recalling what happened last school year. But she was also watching what was still unfolding.
In August, Lexington County Republicans suggested creating a 20-member commission of school board members, politicians and parents to study classroom materials for “race-based instruction” and “vulgar materials.” The proposal failed.
In September, a resident objected to fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury” for its sexually explicit passages — part of a historic wave of schoolbook challengesnationwide. The school board ultimately banned five books in the fantasy series.
The next month, late on Halloween, school board member Catherine Huddle emailed Superintendent Ross with a request.
“I would like a list of all books purchased by or for Chapin High School English teachers” since 2020-2021, she wrote, according to messages obtained by The Washington Post. She wanted to know who ordered and approved each book at Chapin High — no other schools, just Chapin.
Huddle said in an interview that she sent the query after a parent came to her distressed about two books in a teacher’s classroom library. She never knew high school teachers stocked such libraries, she said, and wanted to find out how many and what sorts of books they were buying.
She was not searching for problematic titles, she said, and her request was unconnected to “Between the World and Me.” Huddle declined to say whether she thinks Wood should teach the book.
“I don’t want to talk about that book again because it’s related to personnel,” she said. “I am fine with the teaching of controversial topics … as long as it follows policy and process.”
The superintendent ultimately sent Huddle logs of all “supplies ... transactions” for the years requested; Huddle said she reviewed invoices for book purchases and found nothing concerning, although she still worries classroom libraries amount to separate, uncatalogued books. But when the email became public in local news coverage, Pratt and Wood were incensed by what they saw as the questioning of their professional judgment — and worried that it proved scrutiny of their department was only intensifying.
Two weeks before she was slated to start teaching “Between the World and Me,” Wood tapped out a reminder email to her principal.
“I announced to my class that anyone who wanted to could opt out if they so desired,” she wrote. “I DID include the author in my syllabus, so parents should be fully aware of materials which will be taught in AP Lang.”
She added: “I just wanted to let you know the direction I am heading.”
Jessica Odenwood stood when she heard her name called, clutched her printed speech and prepared to do something the 17-year-old had never done.
It was the night before Wood was slated to teach Coates’s book again. But Jessica, a senior at Chapin High, was stuck on what happened last time.
She was one of the students in Wood’s AP Lang class kept from reading “Between the World and Me.” Back then, Jessica talked with friends about saying something. But, shy and averse to speechmaking, she kept quiet. In the months since, Jessica watched Wood stand up for her beliefs in speeches and interviews. She recalled what she read of “Between the World and Me,” which she found poetic. She thought about how wrong it felt that she never finished the book.
Now, at a late-January school board meeting, she had decided to speak her mind.
“After the books were taken, the classroom environment certainly did not feel safe,” Jessica said. “Public education should never feel like a dystopian society.”
This had been happening more since the controversy over Coates: Some in Chapin were denouncing what they saw as a movement to restrict diverse books and discussions of race. Among them was Ayanna Mayes, the Chapin High librarian. She began working at the school three years ago; in that time, she saw five books draw objections. First, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” about growing up Black and queer in Virginia and New Jersey; then the picture book “Black is a Rainbow Color”; then Coates’s book; then the fantasy novel; and, most recently, another children’s book, “The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb.”
Mayes, who is Black, had always liked Chapin, which she found peaceful, filled with friendly people. But the challenges made her suspect the motives of everyone around her. When the fantasy novels were yanked, Mayes had to pull Chapin High’s copies. One book was checked out. Mayes had to track down the student reading it and take the novel away.
Now Mayes is preparing to speak at a board meeting this month. “I don’t want to be voiceless,” she said in an interview.
But if support was building, so was resistance. The conservative X account “Libs of Tik Tok” later posted a clip of a student speech that January night — in which she thanked her teachers for providing “a diverse education” that spurred her to disagree with her pro-Trump father — and cited it as evidence schools are “indoctrinating” students. Meanwhile, negative comments about the meeting piled up on Facebook, with parents alleging Chapin High teachers, including Wood, are pushing left-wing political views on children.
“This is appalling,” posted Christina Carter, a mother of two in the Lexington-Richland district. “I certainly hope that the state superintendent and board take action.”
Carter, 38, said in an interview that she wants a state investigation into Wood and Chapin High. She read about Wood’s case before she and her family moved to Chapin this summer, attracted in part by the town’s conservative values.
When she arrived, Carter was shocked to learn Wood was still employed. She doesn’t think Wood’s teaching has a place in Chapin.
“In some communities, there is lots of support for that type of material,” Carter said. “But down here I would say there’s a lot of opposition.”
Wood’s son, Summit, knew it firsthand.
Things had gotten weird since his mother gained national attention for teaching “Between the World and Me.” Some of Summit’s friends told him Wood had broken the law, that she was a racist. Summit tackled one of them.
This year, very few people had mentioned it.
Now, Summit knew, his mother was about to risk it all happening again. Before she did, he wanted to show her he understood why.
At the January board meeting, Summit stood up not long after Jessica. Wearing black slacks and a button-down white dress shirt, he pulled up a speech drafted on his iPhone Notes app.
He told the board it is wrong to shut down “diverse viewpoints.” To shield students from harsh realities. He said reading complex literature teaches critical thinking.
“My mother,” he said, “was censored last year.”
He went to bed that night wondering if she would be again.
In class the following Tuesday, before starting the audio recording of Coates’s book, Wood opened her laptop and clicked to “Systemic Racism: A Myth,” published in 2021 by the Institute for Youth in Policy, whose website says it is “devoted to distributing nonpartisan, impartial and inquiry-led content.” Wood found the institute, and its article, after hours of hunting online with Pratt.
“The institution of policing seems systemically racist until the crime rates of African Americans are brought up,” she read. “Disparities of wealth and employment between white Americans and people of color is an understandable statistic.”
Then she pressed play on a four-minute YouTube video: “The Unequal Opportunity Race,” put out by the African American Policy Forum in 2010. Students watched as cartoon characters of different races sped around a track. White runners ran unimpeded, but competitors of color stumbled over roadblocks: A sudden thunder shower labeled “DISCRIMINATION.” A field of rocks headlined “POOR SCHOOLING.” A deep hole titled “UNDEREMPLOYMENT.”
Summit saw some classmates shoot each other looks, he later recalled.
Wood pushed ahead. She clicked a button, and Coates’s voice filled the room: “Son,” he narrated, “last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”
Summit, along with his classmates, opened his book to follow along. He pulled out a pencil and a loose sheet of lined paper.
At first, he kept glancing around to see how his peers were reacting. But soon, he forgot to look: He was too interested in what Coates was saying about the American Dream.
That dream “is perfect houses with nice lawns,” Coates narrated. It is “Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways … treehouses and the Cub Scouts.” Summit thought: He could be describing Chapin.
“For so long I have wanted to escape into the dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket,” Coates said. “But this has never been an option because the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
At that sentence, Wood looked up. She saw Summit first, scribbling notes. She surveyed the rest of the class: Every single student was looking at their book. No one was on their phone.
She felt tears start. Because, for that one moment, they were listening.“