For now, my favorite part of Persepolisgate—the latest educational train wreck engineered by the Emanuel administration—is the parent-penis theory.
But let me back up for a second. In case you’ve been out of town for the last few days, the fiasco I’m referring to is the one in which Chicago Public Schools officials decided
to confiscate copies of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis from classrooms and school libraries across town.
I must admit I’m a little, oh, biased in this matter, because I happen to think that Persepolis—which is about, among other things, a young Iranian woman coming of age after the Islamic revolution—is one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. I urge everyone to run, run, run to read it.
In fact, I’d like to take the time to give a shout-out to the teacher who was one of the first to champion Persepolis in CPS. That would be Nora Flanagan, an award-winning English teacher at Northside College Prep.
You’re the woman, Nora!
In 2001, Flanagan—then a teacher at Lane Tech—won the American Teacher Award, an honor bestowed by the Disney Corporation to top teachers.
Along with the prize came an appearance on Oprah, a meeting with Mayor Richard M. Daley, and an honorarium, part of which she used to buy about 40 copies of Persepolis for a course she taught called Experimental Lit.
“And that’s how they entered Lane,” Flanagan says. In 2008, Flanagan moved to Northside. But the copies of Persepolis stayed at Lane—a legacy she left the school. And those were the books at the center of the debacle that unfolded last week.
That’s when librarians started getting calls from the central office that schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had ordered all copies of Persepolis removed from classrooms and libraries throughout the system. They weren’t told why. Nor was it clear how many schools in the system owned copies, though the book was being taught in classrooms outside of Lane.
“I first heard about it Wednesday,” says one Lane Tech teacher, who asked not to be named. “The librarians in the schools were being told by the central office to take the book off the shelf. Everyone was upset.”
The furor accelerated on Thursday morning, when Lane Tech principal Christopher Dignam sent an e-mail informing his staff that CPS officials had stopped by the school, and that they had been sent to each school to “confirm that Persepolis is not in the library. Confirm that it has not been checked out by a student or teacher. Confirm with the school principal that it is not being used in any classrooms. And to collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library.
“I was not provided a reason for the collection of Persepolis,” Dignam wrote. “If I learn I will inform all staff.”
Education activist Fred Klonsky posted Dignam’s memo on his blog, and as the day wore on, concern and confusion turned to outrage. CPS sent an internal clarification informing librarians that they wouldn’t have to turn over the book—only teachers would. Soon teachers were plotting how to save their copies of Persepolis.
“There are two ways a school can own a copy of a book,” explains a teacher at another high school. “It can be a library book or part of the curriculum. The Supreme Court ruled that you can’t take books from libraries. CPS has jurisdiction over curriculum books.”
“Collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the library.”—An order Lane Tech principal Christopher Dignam says he was given by CPS officials
So “we recataloged them as library books, checked out by me. The books were not leaving the school unless they were in the trunks of my car. I did this as under the radar as possible mainly because if there was going to be trouble, let the trouble be on me and not on anyone else.”
Hey, young people out there—if this doesn’t make you eager to come teach in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, nothing will.
By Friday, the mainstream media had picked up the story. The American Library Association issued a condemnation. Students at Lane held an after-school protest, and reporters tracked down Satrapi in Paris.
“It’s shameful,” she told the Tribune. “I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America.”
Under siege, Byrd-Bennett issued a clarification in a letter to principals. “Let me be clear—we are not banning this book from our schools,” she wrote.
But: “It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum. If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms.”
In other words, the order was only meant for seventh-grade teachers, even though teachers, librarians, and principals swear up and down they were told it was system-wide. And it’s not being banned—seventh-grade teachers just have to remove it from their classrooms.
And, oh, one last thing: “We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades. Once this curricular determination has been made, we will notify you.”
Well, I’m glad she made everything clear.
Central-office officials have not clarified who brought Persepolis to Byrd-Bennett’s attention. But it’s widely assumed that it all began with a complaint from a parent about the book’s interrogation scene, which features a drawing of a fully exposed agent for the secret police urinating on a prisoner he’s torturing.
Hence, the great parent-penis theory: Byrd-Bennett got a complaint, saw the picture, and freaked out.
If so, let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony. For the last few weeks, thousands of parents have begged and pleaded that Mayor Emanuel not close their schools. And Byrd-Bennett’s basic response has been: I know you’re “emotional,” but we know what’s good for your children.
But get one parent complaining about one penis, and the world moves.
“The whole thing is so insulting to teachers,” says Flanagan. “I’m not saying I can’t learn from the central office. But I don’t need the central office to tell me how to teach a book I’ve been teaching for ten years.”
Well, while you mention it, in her letter to the principals, Byrd-Bennett writes: “Due to the powerful images of torture in the book, I have asked our Office of Teaching & Learning to develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong, but important content.”
So when all is said and done, the folks at the central office who tried to confiscate Persepolis will be telling English teachers how to teach it. Presumably, once they get around to reading it.
You watch—some consultant will probably get a nice contract out of this before it’s all over.