Over the past couple of days, a kerfuffle’s been unfolding in the Chicago Public Schools after the administration announced that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis would be removed from seventh-grade classrooms, due to concerns about the language and content, apparently in particular, the book’s portrayal of torture during the Iranian Revolution. It’s not clear to me that a specific parent complaint prompted the book’s being pulled from the curriculum, but it’s still a disappointing decision, given how wonderfully attuned Persepolis is to the inner lives of children and teenagers, particularly teenage girls. And as the decision’s become a political football between the school administration and the Chicago Teacher’s Union, it’s also become a test case in how to handle changes to curriculum poorly, in a way that shows a lack of respect both for students and for strong material itself.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public School system wrote in a letter to principals in her system that: “We have determined Persepolis may be appropriate for junior and senior students and those in Advance Placement classes. 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. 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.” It’s unclear why the school system couldn’t have made this determination over the summer, rather than in the middle of the year, so that the decision would be consistent over a year of students in the system.
I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing in the world to determine that a work can be more fully absorbed by students who are both older, and who have been better-prepared for certain material by other parts of the curriculum, whether it’s history, geography, or other literature. But that determination should be made based on those concerns, and announced in a way that is reflective of a concern about the overall efficacy of curriculum design. Pulling the book from the rotation mid-year can’t help but look like the decision is in response to a parent complaint, rather than a genuine reassessment of how best to present a work that the school system continues to think is important and is committed to presenting in a way that will be to the book’s best advantage as well as to its students’. This seems like it would have been particularly important given that, as the Chicago Teacher’s Union points out, many elementary schools in the system don’t have libraries, so removing Persepolis from the classroom is effectively removing student access to the book, at least in a school setting.
It’s also easy in cases like these to appear that you’re showing a lack of respect for what students can handle. The portrayals of torture in Persepolis aren’t exceptionally graphic. They are, like everything else in the book, in black and white, in fairly simple outlines. Gashes from a beating don’t suppurate—they stand out in sharp relief. The way the pain of them is communicated is through the main character’s reaction. The experience of reading Persepolis as a child or teenager is the experience of seeing the impact of torture on someone very like yourself, who likes punk music, and gets angry at God, and alternately adores and fights with her parents. It’s a book that trusts teenagers to handle the idea of torture and the concept of war because its author had to handle those things not just in practice, but in reality, when her relatives were tortured and her friends’ older siblings were sent off to die in war with keys to paradise around their necks. Believing that children shouldn’t experience those things for real shouldn’t be the same thing as believing that they can’t being trusted to experience the sadness, fear, and anger that will help them navigate the world as moral adults. A school system that’s afraid of its ability to handle introducing students to these kind of emotions or ideas is one that doesn’t seem to trust its teachers or itself very much.