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Her students reported her for a lesson on race. Can she trust them again?

Mary Wood’s school reprimanded her for teaching a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now she hopes her bond with students can survive South Carolina’s politics.

Mary Wood, whose own students reported her for a lesson on racism, stands outside the school she attended and where she now teaches. (Will Crooks)

CHAPIN, S.C. — As gold sunlight filtered into her kitchen, English teacher Mary Wood shouldered a worn leather bag packed with first-day-of-school items: Three lesson-planning notebooks. Two peanut butter granola bars. An extra pair of socks, just in case.

Everything was ready, but Wood didn’t leave. For the first time since she started teaching 14 years ago, she was scared to go back to school.

Six months earlier, two of Wood’s Advanced Placement English Language and Composition students had reported her to the school board for teaching about race. Wood had assigned her all-White class readings from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a book that dissects what it means to be Black in America.

The students wrote in emails that the book — and accompanying videos that Wood, 47, played about systemic racism — made them ashamed to be White, violating a South Carolina proviso that forbids teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.

Reading Coates’s book felt like “reading hate propaganda towards white people,” one student wrote.

At least two parents complained, too. Within days, school administrators ordered Wood to stop teaching the lesson. They placed a formal letter of reprimand in her file. It instructed her to keep teaching “without discussing this issue with your students.”

Wood finished out the spring semester feeling defeated and betrayed — not only by her students, but by the school system that raised her. The high school Wood teaches at is the same one she attended.

It had been a long summer since. Wood’s predicament, when it became public in a local newspaper, divided her town. At school board meetings, and in online Facebook groups, the citizens of wealthy, White and conservative Chapin debated whether Wood should be fired. Republican state representatives showed up to a June meeting to blast her as a lawbreaker. The next month, a county NAACP leader declared her an “advocate for the education of all students.” The county GOP party formally censured the school board chair for failing to discipline Wood.

Wood’s case drew national, polarizing attention. Conservative outlets and commentators decried Wood’s “race-shaming against White people.” Left-leaning media declared her a martyr to “cancel culture,” the latest casualty of raging debates over how to teach race, racism and history that have engulfed the country since the coronavirus pandemic.

South Carolina is one of 18 states to restrict education on race since 2021, according to an Education Week tally. And at least half the country has passed laws that limit instruction on race, history, sex or gender identity, per a Washington Post analysis. Wood is not the first teacher to get caught in the crossfire: The Post previously reported that at least 160 educators have lost their positions since the pandemic due to political debates. Among them was a Tennessee teacher terminated for telling White students that White privilege is a fact. A Texas principal who lost his job for allegedly promoting critical race theory. A Wisconsin teacher who was dismissed after criticizing her district’s decision to ban the song “Rainbowland,” which lauds inclusivity.

The months Wood had hoped to spend hiking, doing yoga and vacationing carefree on the beach turned into a summer spent avoiding people’s gazes at the grocery store and the gas station.

Now she had to go back to school. Which meant confronting the conundrum she had avoided all summer.

Wood believes trust is fundamental to the classroom. She has to trust her students. They and their parents have to trust her. But trust, she believes, is impossible without authenticity. And for Wood, teaching authentically means assigning writers like Coates — voices unfamiliar, even disconcerting, to students in her lakeside town. Because of what happened last year, though, Wood now worried anything, from the most provocative essay to the least interesting comment about her weekend, might be resisted, recorded and reported by the children she was supposed to be teaching.

And if she couldn’t trust them, how was she supposed to make them trust her?

“I should probably head out,” Wood said to her husband, Ryan Satterwhite, glancing at the time on her oven’s digital clock: 7:38 a.m. But she didn’t move. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“It’ll be fine,” Satterwhite told her, setting his mug down and crossing the room.

She looked up at him and placed a hand on his chest. They stood framed in the front window for a moment. He bent down to kiss her.

“Hopefully,” she said. Her mouth quirked into a half-smile, half-frown.

She readjusted her bag, gripped her car keys and walked out the door.

The first complaint didn’t alarm Wood.

It was early February. A day after she gave out copies of “Between the World and Me,” a mother emailed asking to speak about “an assignment.” Wood didn’t see it as different from the parental objections she was used to fielding in Lexington-Richland School District 5, which serves roughly 17,000 students and is about two-thirds White. In interviews, several teachers recalled dealing with opinionated Chapin parents who pushed back against lessons or for better grades.

Wood emailed, phoned and left a voice mail with the mom. “Please call me back,” she remembers saying. She figured they would chat and that would be the end of it.

Wood thought she was on safe ground. She had taught Coates’s book — and accompanying YouTube videos titled “Systemic Racism Explained” and “The Unequal Opportunity Race” — the year prior. No one complained.

She also counted on the fact AP Lang is supposed to be a high-level class. The College Board curriculum says it can address “issues that might, from particular social, historical, or cultural viewpoints, be considered controversial, including references to … races.” Wood’s supervisor, English department chair Tess Pratt, had signed off on Coates’s book. Plus, Wood had required AP Lang students to read a speech from former president Donald Trump, a balancing conservative voice.

And Wood believed the school district had come to accept her — respecting her students’ 80-plus percent AP exam passage rates year after year, above the national average — even if not everyone liked her methods. Chapin was her hometown. Chapin High School had been her school, the place she began to question the conservative, Christian views espoused by her classmates, friends and family.

No teacher ever assigned her someone like Coates, Wood said, but her father Mike Satterfield, a teacher and later principal at Chapin, encouraged her to pursue whatever outside reading she found interesting. That led her to left-leaning authors. By the time she graduated from University of North Carolina Wilmington, she was a self-professed liberal.

Satterfield capped his long career in education by winning a seat on the school board in November 2022 — and that made Wood feel safe, too. (Satterfield declined to comment beyond writing in an email that “I love my daughter very much and respect her for the person that she is.”)

She knew most students leaned right and guessed that many of her colleagues did, too, based on their social media presence and offhand remarks. The popular circles at school are red, current and former students said.

But amid a red sea, Chapin’s English department was a blue island. And Wood was known as the bluest of the bunch — conspicuous for decorating her classroom with posters of Malcom X, Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes and LGBTQ pride stickers.

“She had that granola-crunchy vibe,” said a former Chapin teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional and personal retaliation. “It wouldn’t be difficult to guess how she votes walking into her room. I think that’s what made her a sort of lightning rod.”

Aubrey Hume, a recent Chapin graduate, recalls seeing the Malcolm X poster and immediately clocking that Wood thought differently from most people in town. She also taught Black, female and queer voices that most students never heard in other classrooms nor at home, Hume said.

“It was like, ‘Oh, I got Miss Wood, and now I have to scoff and roll my eyes because she’s going to teach me things I don’t want to learn,’” Hume, 18, recalled. “A lot of kids did not like her.”

Elizabeth Jordan, now 20, was one of those students. Raised in a conservative, Christian household, Jordan was unhappy to learn Wood would be her AP English teacher back in 2019, Jordan’s junior year.

At first, Jordan found Wood’s lessons unsettling — especially the classes focused on mass shootings or transgender rights, during which Wood held up left-leaning viewpoints for students’ inspection. Jordan could not understand why Wood was asking high-schoolers to discuss controversial current events.

“All I was thinking was, ‘This isn’t allowed, this just isn’t allowed,’” Jordan said. “Just because it was a complete 180 from anything I had known.” (South Carolina had not yet passed its legal restrictions on what teachers can say on these topics.)

Over course of the year, though, Jordan’s opinion shifted. She noticed how students seemed to pay more attention in Wood’s class. She noticed that Wood never pushed students to adopt viewpoints but challenged them to account for their convictions. Now a junior in college, Jordan still remembers the debate that followed after a popular boy, the student body president, said transgender athletes should not be allowed to play sports.

“Okay,” Jordan recalls Wood saying, “can you explain that a little bit more?”

By 2023, when Wood assigned Coates, her strategy hadn’t changed: She still gave difficult texts about hot-button issues, convinced it was the best way to keep students’ attention — and teach them how to argue, an AP Lang exam requirement. She still demanded students consider novel perspectives, setting the essay question: “Explain Coates’ problem with America’s tradition of retelling history. Explain your support or disagreement with his position.”

For the two days Wood got to teach “Between the World and Me,” classroom discussions were lively and open, said Connor Bryant, 17, one of the students who took AP Lang last year. Bryant, whose father is a Chapin English teacher, said his peers debated systemic racism and what it’s like to be Black in America, agreeing and disagreeing with Coates, without Wood picking a side.

“She did a really good job of keeping things not boring,” Bryant said. “People spoke up and they had different opinions — I honestly didn’t hear a single complaint about the book from anyone.”

Still, Bryant did remember a handful of disengaged students in the back of the room. They whispered to each other during class.

As in years past, Wood’s style of teaching had left some students feeling uncomfortable. But this time, they didn’t come to respect her.

The student email arrived in school board member Elizabeth Barnhardt’s inbox at 8:51 p.m. on a Sunday, four days after Wood assigned “Between the World and Me.” The student thanked Barnhardt for “looking into this matter.”

“I understand in AP Lang we are learning to develop an argument and have evidence to support it, yet this topic is too heavy to discuss,” the student wrote, according to school records obtained by The Post. I actually felt ashamed to be Caucasian.”

Another student email followed at 9:35 p.m. “I feel, to an extent, betrayed by Mrs Woods,” the second student wrote. “I feel like she has built up this idea of expanding our mind through the introduction of controversial topics all year just to try to subtly indoctrinate our class.”

Especially troublesome, the student wrote, was one of Coates’s sentences stating, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”

The student names were redacted from the emails obtained by Wood through a records request and provided to The Post. A parent who complained about Wood’s course to the school board did not answer a list of emailed questions. Barnhardt, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty last year, did not respond to a request for comment.

“This topic is too heavy to discuss. I actually felt ashamed to be Caucasian.”

— A student’s email objecting to the teaching of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book “Between The World And Me.”

The following Monday afternoon, Wood had finished teaching and was preparing to leave school when she received a call from a school secretary. The woman told her she had an unscheduled meeting with Chapin’s assistant principal of instruction, Melissa Magee, and the district’s director of secondary instruction, Neshunda Walters, at 4 p.m.

The woman didn’t say what the meeting was about, but Wood guessed. She grabbed Pratt, the English department chair and one of her best friends, hoping for protection. And she pulled up the AP Lang course description on her laptop, figuring she might need it.

Wood and Pratt were kept waiting outside a conference room for over half an hour, they later recalled. Through a window in the door, Pratt said, she could see Magee and Walters sifting through pages of documents in a manila folder. Around 4:30, Wood and Pratt said, they were let into the room — but Walters dismissed Pratt over her protests, the department chair said. She kept waiting outside as Wood underwent what the English teacher later described as an interrogation.

A set of administrative talking points prepared ahead of the meeting, obtained through Wood’s records request and given to The Post, show that Magee and Walters were supposed to start by telling Wood her teaching had sparked “concerns.” They were supposed to mention the South Carolina policy against making students uncomfortable because of their race. They were supposed to remind her of school rules stipulating that “teachers will not attempt, directly or indirectly, to limit or control students’ judgment concerning any issue” — and that “the principal must approve supplementary materials” for classes.

They were supposed to “let her talk” about Coates’s book and her reason for assigning it. But the verdict was already determined: “This assignment could run in conflict with proviso and policies,” the talking points said. “We need to cease this assignment.” (It is unclear who wrote the talking points; the school did not answer a list of emailed questions about the document.)

Wood said the meeting proceeded almost exactly as the talking points laid out. She tried to defend herself. She cited the AP Lang course description, quoting the part that said it was okay for teachers to assign controversial texts. She said the purpose of the lesson was for students to hear a stimulating argument they could explore and critique.

Magee and Walters let her talk. After she finished, Wood recalls, Walters delivered a two-word order: “Pause instruction” related to Coates’s book. The district did not answer questions about the meeting nor make Magee or Walters available for interviews. Superintendent Akil E. Ross, Sr. declined to discuss any aspect of Wood’s lesson or its fallout, noting the district does not comment on specific staff members or incidents.

Ross wrote in a statement that “we want our students to be critical thinkers with the ability to develop their own understanding of the world.” He added, “There will be times when students or parents disagree with issues discussed in class. The best way to resolve these matters is communication between the family and the teacher.”

The school gave Wood two days off teaching for “professional development,” she said, so she could come up with something to replace Coates’s book, which she was supposed to teach for the next three weeks. A substitute taught her classes in the meantime.

Wood struggled to figure out what to do. It was bad enough that she was supposed to overhaul a whole unit in two days. Worse, Wood said, Magee and Walters had revealed the complaints came directly from students — not parents, as was more usual. They wouldn’t say who, Wood said. They wouldn’t provide copies, not even anonymous ones.

Wood agonized over how to face her classroom again. She wasn’t angry with her students, she said. She expected high-schoolers to get upset about some of the things she taught. But before, teenagers and their parents had always brought their complaints to her. And she had always defused the situation.

What frustrated her now was that she’d been skipped over: The students had gone directly to the school board. And school officials were listening to the teens, not her.

“Taking the word of a couple of students over the professional integrity of a seasoned educator is damaging to the relationship between all parties involved,” she wrote in an email to her principal and the superintendent on February 8.

But most of all, she was scared.

“I didn’t know who did it,” Wood said. “And I — I didn’t know how to talk after that.”

“Taking the word of a couple of students over the professional integrity of a seasoned educator is damaging to the relationship between all parties involved.”

— AP English teacher Mary Wood, in an email to her school authorities

She decided the safest course was to teach examples of old AP exam questions for the rest of the semester. She wouldn’t allow debate anymore. She wouldn’t so much as mention “Between the World and Me,” a decision reinforced by the letter of reprimand, which arrived in early March.

But her students still had copies of Coates’s book.

So, on her first day back, five other English teachers — including Pratt — walked with her to first period, AP Lang, which all of them had free. At a regular English department meeting that morning, Wood’s colleagues had decided to gather the books on her behalf. They also wanted to collect the titles as speedily and professionally as possible, Pratt recalled, to minimize stress and awkwardness for Wood and her students. They figured more teachers would pick up the books more quickly. The five teachers lined up near the door as students filed in. Wood sat behind her desk.

Once the last teen had sat down, Wood delivered three stilted sentences, screened and scrutinized by most of the English department in advance. Stripped of all possible controversy.

“We will no longer be reading this book,” she said, according to six people in the room and a contemporary, written account of the day’s events provided by Pratt. “We will be collecting it now. Please look at the Smart Board so that I can direct you to today’s lesson.”

The five teachers walked up the five aisles between students’ desks. They lifted copies of “Between the World and Me” from desks as they walked. Some students began rereading underlined or favorite passages as teachers approached, said Bryant, the AP Lang student.

A boy sitting next to Bryant had plastered his copy with what looked like five sticky notes per page. A teacher, Pratt, stood and waited until the boy had pulled out each note. It took almost half a minute.

“Looks like you wrote a lot,” Pratt remembers telling him.

A teacher placed the collected copies of the books on a shelf in the classroom. They remained there, untouched, until the last day of school.

On a steamy Monday afternoon in late June, Wood pulled up the live stream link for that month’s school board meeting. Her golden lab mix, Saint, and Yorkie poo, Happy, jumped onto the couch as she cast the meeting onto the television screen.

News of Wood’s canceled lesson had broken two weeks earlier in regional newspaper the State. She had mostly stayed inside the house since. She figured the board meeting, with its opportunity for public comment, was one way to take the temperature of the town.

The first speaker was a woman in a white striped dress, her blonde hair piled into a bun. She said South Carolina was making the news for the wrong reasons: “We now know that there have been teachings in a school, here in this district, of systemic racism. … This is not only inappropriate and divisive, this is illegal.”

Then came another woman, who declared herself “surprised to learn that this teacher is still employed.” Still another, who said she was a grandmother in the district, began by thanking the board: “You opened this meeting with a prayer. That was awesome. I hope that means we’re all Christians.” She, too, called for Wood’s firing. Watching, Wood recognized none of the women.

(The district declined to answer questions about Wood’s employment, but board members have previously said the power to punish teachers rests with school-level administrators. Wood said she has received no discipline beyond the reprimand letter.)

The fifth speaker was South Carolina State House Rep. Robert J. “RJ” May III (R), who had driven 30 minutes from his home near South Congaree to reach Chapin. In an interview with The Post, he said worried parents and students, some of them in Wood’s class, contacted him asking him to speak at the meeting.

He was happy to do it because he thinks Wood broke state law and acted outside the parameters of her job by assigning Coates’s book — which May said presents the author’s biased views of history as fact. He said books that deal with systemic racism should be taught in social studies, government or politics courses. If they are taught at all.

“We should be a colorblind society,” May said that night.

On her sofa, Wood shouted at the screen. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

The front door banged open behind her, admitting Summit, her 16-year-old son and a student at Chapin High. Turning to greet him, Wood saw his lips pressed into a line.

“What happened?” she remembers asking.

“Mom, did you break the law?” he said, according to his and Wood’s recollection of that night. “My friends called you racist.”

Wood told him that, sometimes, good people get bad information from the wrong places — like Fox News, popular in Chapin. Summit nodded, face tight. He said he’d tackled one of the students who called her racist and didn’t want to be friends with those people anymore.

“Mom, did you break the law? My friends called you racist.”

— Summit Wood, 16, son of teacher Mary Wood

Wood knew the friend group he was talking about. They were all boys she liked: They’d eaten lunch in her classroom many times the year prior. She swallowed the hurt and told her son what she knew she should say.

“You can be friends with them,” she said. “You just have to talk to them about it.”

Summit considered. “All right,” he said after a moment, and went upstairs to play video games.

The board meeting on TV stretched onward. Speaker after speaker denounced her.

Wood didn’t sleep well that night. Or most of the summer.

A bright spot was the next school board meeting, in mid July. This time, a dozen teachers and residents spoke out in Wood’s favor. Coates himself traveled to Chapin to meet her. They went out to dinner. Coates came with her to the board meeting, sitting silently in the back. He signed her copy of “Between the World and Me.” He told her he appreciated her courage, she said. (Coates did not respond to an interview request.)

She went on vacation to Ocracoke Island, N.C. in late July, where she tried to sum up her feelings in a journal entry.

“Teachers are afraid,” she wrote. “Teachers are silent. Teachers cave.”

As Wood pulled into the Chapin High parking lot on Aug. 7, her stomach twisted.

She wouldn’t have to face her students. It was a “professional development” week: Time for teachers to knock out trainings, organize their classrooms, prepare their lessons. But she did have to see her colleagues, many for the first time since her debacle went public.

Seven minutes before the start of school, sitting in her car, Wood texted another English teacher: “Will you walk in with me? I’m scared.”

The day went okay. At a welcome-back teacher breakfast, Wood nibbled on casseroles as her English department friends shared details of their summers: playing pickle ball, hiking in the High Sierras. She joked in reply that her own summer had been “pretty boring.”

She would be teaching AP Lang again. Her son Summit would be taking the class. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

She saw two students had requested to switch out of another English class she was teaching, without sharing why. She wondered if it was because of what happened. A few teachers who she knows disagree with her politically didn’t respond when she said “Hi” to them in the hallways. She wondered, again, if it was because of what happened.

A week later, on the day students returned to campus, her phone buzzed with a text during morning assembly: “I love you,” her son Summit wrote. Then a second message: “Thanks for always doing what is right.”

Wood’s AP Lang class met in the early afternoon. At 1:15 p.m., as the last students settled into their chairs, Wood rose and introduced herself. She looked out at the 25 teens, spotting her son, three of his good friends, two children she’d taught before and three others who went to preschool with Summit. She told the room she grew up in Chapin, too.

Wood pulled out a plastic sandwich bag filled with shell fragments she collected on the beach in during her Ocracoke vacation. She gave the bag to a student and asked him to pass it around the room. She told each teen to take one.

The shells had once been whole, she said. Like a promise kept. A trust fulfilled.

But they broke. Maybe in stormy waters, or when they were dragged across the bottom of the ocean, or because a beachgoer stepped on them.

Sometimes, “we start to feel broken,” she said, “tossed around kind of like those shells. We’re chipped away at … broken from each other.”

She watched her students plunge their hands into the bag and fish for shells.

“But the thing is,” Wood said, “that’s not true.”

Story editing by Adam B. Kushner. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Jeremy Hester. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.

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