Saturday, March 13, 2004
niggardly = stingy
wilmingtonstar.com: Use of a word that sounds like a racial slur has landed a New Hanover County teacher in the middle of a controversy.
Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School, taught the word "niggardly" to her class last week in an effort to improve her students' vocabularies.
Although the word means stingy, Akwana Walker said it was inappropriate to use it because it sounds similar to a racial slur. She said she doesn't think fourth-graders can distinguish between the two words.
"My daughter told me what that word was, and I told her not to complete that part of her homework," said Ms. Walker, who is black.
Ms. Bell, who is white, defended her choice of the word and said she didn't mean to offend anyone. She has already sent home letters of apology with her students, as her principal instructed.
The word came up Aug. 20 during a comparison of two characters from different stories. One character was a Hispanic girl; the other was a white boy. The class talked briefly about the proper words to use when describing a person's race, Ms. Bell said.
Then, the class discussed other ways to describe people. One child described the boy as stingy.
Ms. Bell said she thought this would be a good chance to find a word for the day, a practice she has used this year.
"The idea for the word of the day is to pick part of the curriculum or something you can extend from it," she said.
She began looking for a synonym for "stingy." The children's dictionary offered "self-centered." But Ms. Bell said most of the children already knew that word.
That's when she landed on the word "niggard." She added the "-ly" because the class was studying adverbs. Ms. Bell explained the meaning of the word and told the students how to use it in a sentence, something they would have to do on their spelling tests to gain extra points.
"And that was it," she said. "These words for the day are used solely as extra credit. They have to use the word in a sentence that shows they understand the meaning."
Her students did that on their vocabulary tests, she said.
A few days later, Ms. Bell received a letter from Ms. Walker saying the word was not allowed in her house, no matter what it means.
"Common sense tells you not to put a word like that on the board," Ms. Walker said.
Ms. Walker met with Ms. Bell and the school's principal, Susan Hahn, Thursday. As a result, Ms. Walker's daughter, Gabrielle, has been moved to another class.
In addition to the apology sent home Friday, Ms. Bell has agreed not to use the word again in her class. A counselor will meet with Ms. Bell's students.
Ms. Walker doesn't think that's enough. She wants Ms. Bell removed from her teaching position.
Norm Shearin, deputy superintendent for the New Hanover County Schools, said Friday the principal is dealing with the situation.
"Our position is that it was an inappropriate action in terms of using that word at that grade level, in that context," he said. ". It was a bad choice."
This isn't the first time the word has stirred controversy. In 1999, for instance, an employee in the Washington, D.C., mayor's office resigned after being accused of using a racial slur. He had used the word "niggardly" during a conversation about funding.
Ms. Bell said she was sorry the word offended someone, but she wants people to understand that "niggardly" is an appropriate word.
"If these children read it, they are going to need to know what they are reading," she said. "My concern is that we are treading a fine line here. . What word do we take out next?"
William Whalen, whose daughter also is in Ms. Bell's class, said he thinks the situation has been blown out of proportion. Mr. Whalen is white.
"One mother was offended because she took that word to mean something it didn't mean," he said. "Ms. Bell apologized. That was sufficient."
He added his daughter has encountered the word when reading The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
"She's a good teacher," Mr. Whalen said. "I don't think she had any ulterior motives. . It's a word. That's all it is."
Sherry Jones: 343-2378
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