Hey Chicago Schools: This is Why We Should Teach “Persepolis”
When I first read the news on Friday morning that Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was pulling Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel “Persepolis” from curricula, classrooms, and libraries, I hoped that it was just a clever trick to get students interested in reading it. After all, common sense tells us that the best way to get a kid to read a book is to tell him it’s banned, right?
Much to my horror, I was wrong. CPS actually banned the book. In a memo to all the principals in the district, Byrd-Bennett wrote: “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.” The memo went on to ask principals to confirm that the book was not checked out of the library by anyone, and to remove copies of the book from the library. The district also wanted principals to remove the books from all classrooms, not just seventh grade ones.
Later on, Byrd-Bennett backpedaled, saying that the book was not being taken out of school libraries, and that it was appropriate for juniors and seniors in high school.
Everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Library Association to the Chicago Teachers’ Union has weighed in on the issue, saying that book banning in general and the banning of “Persepolis” in particular is disgraceful. Satrapi herself told the Chicago Tribune that the book is appropriate for all ages, saying “I donít think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence.” Lane Tech students also planned a protest outside of their school.
Though I knew about the book, I had never read it. Naturally, as soon as I heard the news of its banning, I got a copy and read voraciously. It is a beautifully written and illustrated graphic novel about Satrapi coming of age in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. As you can imagine with this subject matter, some of the images are quite graphic, albeit not realistically drawn in the least. I would say that the images are more like cartoons than anything else, which is appropriate because the narrator — Satrapi — is a child for much of the book. The violent images include those of tortured prisoners who are beaten, dismembered and even urinated on. But for every violent image there is a beautiful one like those of Satrapi being cradled in God’s beard as she talks to him about her worries.
What struck me at the heart of the book was its commitment to the truth. Satrapi obviously wanted to be sure to get the details just right, and written in a way that was accessible to everyone. It seemed, especially, that she was trying to make the book accessible to younger people, so they could be educated about the Iranian revolution, which makes CPS’s decision to ban the book particularly ironic.
I am not a teacher in CPS, but I do teach high school in the Chicagoland area, and I would love to teach the book to my sophomores. In fact, even in light of the violent images and language, I would jump at the chance. My students — just like students in most places nowadays — are no strangers to violence. If they are not seeing it in their video games and their movies or on the news, they are faced with it every day in the hallways or on the streets.
The kind of violence Satrapi explains in her book is vitally important to study, since students often don’t get to this part of history in their social studies classes, and having a perspective on the Iranian Revolution can give students knowledge about Iran as a country, the United States’ relationship with Iran now, as well as the back story to one of their favorite recent movies, “Argo.” Furthermore, Satrapi spends a good deal of time discussing the veil she is forced to wear, which teaches students about the veil, as well as about women’s freedom (or lack thereof) in the country.
This knowledge is incredibly important for students today, which is why I would teach it to my sophomores, and why I urge CPS to reconsider their banning of the book. “Persepolis” uses a unique format and voice to disseminate this information and, though it may make some teachers, students, and administrators uncomfortable, sometimes that is what we need to truly begin to open our minds and see the world a little differently.
Photo Credit: WBEZ 91.5 courtesy of CPS