Chicago Public School students protest the removal of the graphic novel Persepolis from some school curricula. The action took place outside Lane Tech High School, March 15, 2013.
Photo: Max Herman
Chicago Public Schools administrators created an uproar today after ordering that Persepolis, the acclaimed comic-book autobiography by Marjane Satrapi, be pulled from the school curricula—and students and teachers responded by protesting Friday afternoon outside Lane Tech High School. Despite cold rain, a crowd of about 60 people gathered with signs to draw attention to the decision. Lane Tech junior Cooper Staszak, admitted they hadn't read Persepolis, "but I'm just against the premise of banning books."
Written and drawn by Marjane Satrapi, the memoir reflects on her experiences as an Iranian girl growing up during the tumultuous late ’70s, when a restrictive religious regime took control of the country and, among other things, forced all women to wear a hijab (head scarf). Given its that the book is a highly acclaimed coming-of-age story and has never been challenged in the U.S. before, the decision took many by surprise—including the Chicago Teachers Union. “The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran,” CTU rep Kristine Mayle said in a statement. (The 2007 Oscar-nominated animated film adaptation, rated PG-13, was also banned in Iran.)
Talk of book banning is a surefire way to rile up a lot of people—and although CPS officials insist they've done no such thing, they do have themselves to blame for not being clearer about their intentions. Over two days of mixed messages, a series of emails sent to Chicago Public School employees suggested that the acclaimed book Persepolis should be pulled entirely from the school system. Initial reports—yesterday, from a retired teacher's blog that covers CPS, and again this morning on The Beat and other comic-book news sites—quoted an email from Lane Tech's princpal, in which he wrote that an official "stopped by my office and informed me" to confirm, by today, "that Persepolis is not in the [school] library" and "that it is not being used in any classrooms." But by early afternoon Friday, not long after the Chicago Tribune reported the same thing, Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett clarified that the book would remain in school libraries (although perhaps not in too many classrooms).
"Let me be clear: We are not banning this book from our schools," said Byrd-Bennett's statement, which CPS spokespersons provided to Time Out Chicago Kids. At the same time, she confirmed the edict to ban the book from any lesson plans for seventh graders: "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."
That qualified ruling doesn’t quite put Persepolis in the clear. Although it remains on school-library shelves for now, “We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades,” she wrote. In other words, CPS still isn't sure if the book can be taught to high-school sophomores.
The confusion and back-pedalling about the library ban did little to quell the frustration and outrage felt by some students. When interviewed earlier today at the protest, Lane Tech senior Katie McDermott told us, "If this doesn't get resolved, we are shooting to have an in-school protest with the books in the library. ... Obviously, it'll be peaceful. We have contacted a blogger who is willing to give us 100 copies of Persepolis, so we will have a bunch of copies for the students to read if they haven't read it."
Staszak told us, when asked why it was important to fight on behalf of seventh graders who aren't old enough to attend Lane Tech, "Well, I mean, who else is gonna do it?" McDermott followed up with a longer answer to that question: "I wouldn't say, 'on behalf of the seventh graders.' I would just say, 'on behalf of the CPS Education System in general.' I think it's time that the student's voices are heard, and since the younger kids aren't able to really be eloquent enough with what they're saying, we are the voices for those people that can't talk."
The furor comes at a time when relations are still tense between CPS officials (and Mayor Rahm Emanuel) and the teachers' union. Adding fuel to the fire, union rep Mayle speculated about the motivations behind the Persepolis censorship: “We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this—at a time when they are closing schools—because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.”
Speaking from her current home city of Paris, author-artist Marjane Satrapi told the Tribune, “It’s shameful. I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America.” Told of reports that some adults objected to depictions of torture in the book, Satrapi scoffed. “These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame. I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh graders have brains, and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet."