Clarence Bans Nothing

On Tuesday night, the Clarence School Board held its regularly scheduled March meeting. On the agenda was a review of the curriculum procedure regarding materials that some parents might find objectionable. This is a completely reasonable thing for a board member to want to discuss, and wholly uncontroversial. 

However, late last week, an inflammatory hit list of allegedly obscene or inappropriate books and other materials was sent to selected homes in town. I obtained a copy of it and posted it widely  – here at Artvoice and on social media sites.  It – and my accompanying letter to the board – spread throughout the town. 

The people who had hoped that Tuesday’s meeting would include a discussion of an inappropriate curriculum were met with a shocker last night. These meetings – at best – attract about 20 spectators. This time, however, the place was literally standing room only. 

The board flew through its regular agenda, including a somewhat distressing presentation about the district’s understaffed special education department – last year’s budget crisis eliminated all of the social workers. Zero, nada, zilch. Kids who need these special services include those who undergo some sort of situational trauma like death, disease, divorce, drugs, or depression. So, it’s an interesting coincidence that many of the books on the hit list included kids who underwent similar traumas – especially rape. It was also striking to me that the majority of the books on the hit list were written by women, had female lead characters, or advocated somehow for the notion that women not be victims of assault, and that they are human beings equal to men in all things. 

When the discussion turned to this agenda item, Trustee Jason Lahti, who originally brought the matter up, begged off the controversy, indicating that he merely wanted to discuss the curriculum process, not ban any books. He indicated that he did not know anything about the letter and hit list from his wife, Ginger, that circulated throughout the town. Trustee Roger Showalter, Ginger’s brother, tersely indicated his satisfaction with the town’s opt-out provision for parents or kids who find materials objectionable. Then the rest of the board spoke. Every single Trustee spoke passionately and eloquently about the teachers, the students, the curriculum, and the adequacy of the current policies. Julie McCullough got the first standing ovation, and a huge sigh of relief when I realized that the crowd was there to defend – not defame – the books and faculty. Board President Michael Lex spoke about the need for adolescents to learn about overcoming assault and adversity, and quoted the author of hit list book Speak

But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” – Laurie Halse Anderson

Then, the community spoke. Student after student – some current, some recent alums – was unbelievably brave and eloquent. Not only had they been taught to be rational analysts and critical thinkers, but good speakers, too. They defended specific books – one especially brave young alum spoke of her own assault and how it affected her mental health, causing her to drop out of college. She explained that she suffered terrible anxiety, yet she stood bravely in front of the board and 100+ members of the community to defend Speak, holding up her dog-eared copy and explaining how it helped her. Kids stood and defended their teachers and the way in which they teach these materials in a thoughtful and engaging way. 

There were a small handful of people there who were there to defend the hit list. Ginger Lahti herself was there, and tried to disassociate herself from the controversy. While Channel 2 was airing an interview with her in which she acknowledged preparing the mailing to address “obscene” works, she stood before the community to explain that it wasn’t even her list, that she had only shared it with two pastors, and that she doesn’t know how it got circulated. She said she wanted to see what the community thought, and she acknowledged that the community was clearly just fine with the current policy. One woman relentlessly attacked the works, alleging that she and her family had opted out over 30 times because of language and themes in some of the works, and she saved especial ire for the sex ed curriculum. Frankly, if you’re opting out of award-winning literature 30 times, perhaps public school just isn’t for you. 

However, the four people, including Lahti, who spoke about the hit list did raise an important issue – some kids who opt out have no meaningful alternative, and are just sent to the library for weeks at a time. 

When I spoke I thanked the board for bringing this matter to the community’s attention, and thanked Mr. Lahti specifically.  I said it was good to, basically, air grievances and discuss how to make policies work better, and that it was important that the handful of affected opt-out parents bring the issues of alternatives to the board’s attention so that these matters can be handled better. But I pointed out the Blue 4 Ben movement and argued that the community was capable of great things when we work together, rather than trying to rip people apart. While the agenda seems uncontroversial now, when it was coupled with the outrageous hit list, it certainly seemed to be a set-up for an effort to ban books and restrict the faculty’s and students’ rights. While Mrs. Lahti now disavowed the list and said she didn’t know where it came from, I noted that she referenced it in her letter. I closed by noting how my parents emigrated to this country in order to flee totalitarian dictatorship and a place where they were told what to think, what to read, and with whom to associate, and never did anyone imagine that we’d be facing similar issues in the U.S. a half-century later. 

The faculty – Mr. Zahn and Mr. Starr spoke passionately to defend the teachers and the curriculum, but also the Constitution. There was the kid who joked that the books on the hit list were so harmful to his upbringing that, instead of being back at college doing drugs, drinking, and having sex, he was at a school board meeting during Spring break defending the wholesomeness of his education. One parent stood to link the earlier special education presentation to the issues brought up in many of these books – how will we adequately help kids who suffer real-life traumas if we refuse properly to fund the nurses, special education, and school psychological staff. 

It was a glorious night, and the board just killed it. A packed house to defend free speech and critical thinking. A packed house to defend controversial books and essays, arguing that these materials are part of a carefully crafted, well-considered curriculum, and that the works are handled appropriately, with care. 

Yesterday, in advance of the meeting, I took some time to learn a little bit about each book on the hit list. Each one of them is an important, noteworthy work that teaches adolescents a valuable lesson. 

The Clarence List by Alan Bedenko


 But I learned a valuable lesson, too. I learned that the kids are awesome. They’re brave, well-spoken, thoughtful, and hungry for knowledge. Whether it was the professional-quality, amazing production of Spamalot that the high school drama club put on last weekend, or the heartfelt speakers last night, they made us all proud. 

The Long Walk: Released Today

Today is a big day for my friend and former colleague, Brian Castner. A book he wrote about his experiences in Iraq as a bomb disposal unit commander, and about his readjustment to civilian life, is released today. He led a group that would find and destroy IEDs, investigate the aftermath of their detonation, and conduct house-to-house searches for the perpetrators. Almost more chilling is what that sort of experience does to a person when they return Stateside. 

Brian is a gifted and intelligent writer and he offers a unique perspective on a conflict we who weren’t there understand only in the abstract. Congratulations to him – I hope the book is a hit, and I thank him for sharing his experience with a wider audience. 

Brian appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, and you can listen to his interview here. He has also talked with Nick Mendola, Artvoice, Publisher’s Weekly, and maintains his own blog here

Follow Brian on Twitter, and “like” his Facebook page here

An Evening With Guy Delisle

Last week, I met Guy Delisle

His name may mean nothing to you, and his work is somewhat obscure and not as well-known as it should be, but I went way out of my way to attend an “Evening With” event held under the auspices of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival at a Toronto movie theater. It included a Q & A, a screening of a documentary called “The Delisle Chronicles“, and a book signing, courtesy of Toronto’s The Beguiling

Guy Delisle with UT Professor Nick Mount in Toronto May 3, 2012

My father first introduced me to Delisle’s work, when he gave me a copy of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea as a Christmas gift. I was instantly hooked. Sure, I read comic books when I was a kid, graduating through to graphic novels when Art Spiegelman’s Maus was released in the early 90s, which showed a wide audience that comics didn’t have to be all fantasy and superheroes, but I wasn’t an aficionado by any stretch. What I am is a fan of travelogues, insightful, concise, observational writing, and countries so closed off from the rest of the world that they’re all but forbidden to visit.  Delisle’s bibliography is here, and his YouTube videos are here (including a small snippet from Delisle’s visit with a Bedouin family, which is discussed in his newest book). 

I’ve read and re-read Pyongyang many times, and have also read his other travelogues, the Burma Chronicles and Shenzhen . I enjoy tracking how Delisle’s maturation took him from doing animation gigs in eastern Asia as a single man, to accompanying his wife (with kid) to Burma for a year as part of her job with Doctors Without Borders. 

A few years ago, his wife’s work took them to Jerusalem for a year. They lived in Arab East Jerusalem, and his wife’s work took her to Gaza during a particularly tense period. Jerusalem is Delisle’s most ambitious travelogue work to date, and is broken up into chapters featuring particular observations he had during each month of their stay.

During his talk, Delisle explained how the character he uses for himself isn’t fully fleshed out, and represents only a portion of his personality. But he also noted that, except for North Korea, he went into each country as neutrally as he could. He had no preconceived notions of the situation on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but in his own inimitable way, he explains what a horrible place it is, filled with both earnest and terrible people who all essentially practice some religious variant based on the same foundation, yet can’t figure out a reasonable way to co-exist. 

He is torn when confronted with the shopping options at a nearby settlement, but relents when he sees Arabs shopping there, as well. He’s astonished by the separation of Jews and Arabs in Hebron, where each population – unable or unwilling simply to coexist – clings to its particular victimization through past massacres by the other. 

Delisle left Canada about 25 years ago, and lives now with his wife and two children in the South of France. His wife has left her job with Doctors Without Borders, and they have no plans to live in any other third world or strife-ridden countries in the near future. To some degree, then, Jerusalem isn’t just something of an epic, but a coda. Delisle has taken to fatherhood and in his own self-deprecating, insightful way, has begun using that as a theme in his newer works.  During the Q and A I had asked him, now that they weren’t going on any extended third world stays, whether he might do a memoir of his pre-Shenzhen life.  He’s got an interesting story – kid from Quebec City goes to Toronto to learn animation, drops out to work for a Montreal studio and becomes an accomplished animator and accidental cartoonist. He said he did not, and that he was focusing instead on his life as a dad. 

Delisle signs my copy of "Jerusalem"

As for new books, there’s Louis à la plage, and Louis au ski, and I’m sure his younger daughter, Alice, will become the subject of a book or two, as well. He’s also started a series called “Bad Dad” with several entries at his website (in French, click on the images to see the full strip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).  

Delisle’s work isn’t as well-known in the US as it is in Canada, but he just concluded a month-long book tour of North America.  Through following his blog of his time in Jerusalem, I knew a book was in the works, and that I would buy it, but it never occurred to me that I might actually get to meet him, much less do so in a small audience and get there early enough to get a second-row seat. To say I geeked out over the whole thing would be an understatement. 

As I stood in line to have my books signed, a woman came by to tell us that Delisle would sign them all, but he’d draw a picture only in one. A picture. As the line moved along, I watched him look at which book people presented to him for drawings, and he would commence to draw characters from that particular book – a Burmese general for Burma Chronicles, Captain Sin from Pyongyang, or perhaps a rabbi or his daughter, Alice, for Jerusalem. 

When my turn came, I presented a new copy of Jerusalem for him, and he drew his own character: 

I didn’t get some supporting character – I got the protagonist himself. We chatted briefly, and when I mentioned I came up from Buffalo especially for this event, he joked, “but I was just in Buffalo last week!”  I mentioned the story about my dad buying Pyongyang for me, and he remarked, “oh, your father is a comics fan”, and I replied, “not really, but he’s a fan of books about communist countries, since he emigrated from one in the 60s”.  We then talked about certain parts of the book that were typical for any communist economy – like the Yangkaggdo Hotel‘s “Restaurant No. 1” and “No. 2” which were essentially identical to each other, and to the “No. 3” which was undergoing renovations until the last few days of his stay, and when it opened it was just like the other two. We both laughed. He was done signing the other books I had, and like that, the event was over, and I walked out into a monsoon.