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One of my favorite books is Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s brilliant 1986 graphic novel that recounts his parents’ harrowing experiences during the Holocaust when they were imprisoned in Auschwitz. In the book, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs. It is a richly and simply drawn blend of history, fiction, and memoir that captures the story of these survivors, their trauma, and the consequences for their son. The book is a complete artistic success, hailed widely as a masterpiece and awarded a Pulitzer, the first ever handed to a graphic novel. Not to overstate Maus’ significance, its publication legitimized this form of storytelling and marked a historic moment in American literature. In 1992, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition displaying Spiegelman’s original panels for the work. Two weeks ago, a Tennessee school board voted to ban the book.
That decision of the board of education of McMinn County—located in the southeastern part of the state—generated headlines. Maus was the anchor text for an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust, and the reason for knocking it out of the curriculum was that the book includes a few “cuss” words, as one county school board member put it, and depicts nudity (that is, illustrated animal nudity). The offending phraseology was “bitch” and “god damn.” Of course, it’s ridiculous to object to an account of the mass murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others because of salty language and (animal!) nudity. But that’s what happened. Spiegelman told the New York Times it seemed to him the board members were asking, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?” To understand this decision—which was rendered just down the road from where the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred in 1925—I read through the minutes of the school board meeting devoted to Maus. It makes the story worse.
The session opened with Lee Parkison, the director of schools for the county, noting that “there is some rough, objectionable language in the book” and that two or three school board members came by his office to discuss it. He consulted with the attorney for the school system, Scott Bennett, and they decided the best fix was to redact “eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.” Apparently, that was not sufficient.
Board member Tony Allman remarked, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.” Julie Goodin, an instructional supervisor who used to teach history, patiently explained to Allman that “there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.” Allman wouldn’t relent: “I understand that on TV and maybe at home these kids hear worse, but we are talking things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined and rightfully so. And we are teaching this and going against policy.” Melasawn Knight, another instructional supervisor, took a stab at it: “People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide, and people were killed, over six million murdered… [Spiegelman] is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time…Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he used that language.”
Allman went on to say that Spiegelman had once done artwork for Playboy: “You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school.” The book, though, was being taught in the eighth grade. He continued: “If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
Goodin tried again: “We have to teach our kids. Are these words okay? No, not at all… Are we going to be teaching these words outside of this book as vocabulary words? No, you know me better than that, Tony Allman.” It wasn’t working. He shot back: “If a student sitting in the cafeteria decides to read this out loud and complete the sentences, what are you going to do?” He and other members appeared obsessed with the notion that students would be reciting portions of the book just so they could say “bitch” and “god damn.”
Steven Brady, another instructional supervisor, explained to the board that though Maus is the anchor text for this English Language Arts module on the Holocaust, the class also includes interviews with Holocaust survivors, excerpts from other books, and assorted news stories. And that Maus was chosen in part because of its format. Students in this class create graphic novel panels as part of their study. (The other three modules for the year cover Latin America, food, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.) Brady remarked, “We are not promoting the use of these words. If anything, we are promoting that these words are inappropriate and it’s best that we not use them.” He told the board that Maus could not be replaced without “redoing this whole module.”
School board member Jonathan Pierce didn’t buy that. “You can take that module and rewrite it and make it do the same thing…The wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies. If I said on the school bus that I was going to kill you, we would be bringing disciplinary action against that child.” Another member, Rob Shamblin, interjected: “My bigger concern is that this is probably the tip of the iceberg of what is out there.” He was suggesting that the entire curriculum needed more vetting to catch Maus-like problems.
It’s easy to imagine the frustration of the educators up against this. Knight tried again to reason with the board, pointing out that the numerous books taught in the system contain “foul language,” including Bridge to Terabithia, The Whipping Boy, and To Kill a Mockingbird. That was a no-sale. Board member Mike Cochran piped up: “I went to school here thirteen years…I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language…So this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.” He groused that the book obliquely refers to Spiegelman’s father losing his virginity and explicitly depicts the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father,” he complained, “so I don’t really know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff…We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history… We don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”
To make his point, Cochran raised the issue of a poem that he claimed was being taught in seventh grade and he insisted on reading it:
I’m just wild about Harry, and Harry’s wild about me/ The heavenly blisses of his kisses, fill me with ecstasy/ He’s sweet just like chocolate candy/ Just like honey from the bee/ Oh I am just wild about Harry, and he’s just wild about me
He griped that students were asked to define “ecstasy” and that they were being exposed to “vulgarity.” He went on: “It looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity, and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it.”
I don’t know if the educators present kept a straight face. Cochran was quoting not a poem but the lyrics of the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which was written by Eubie Blake in 1921. Judy Garland had a hit with the tune in 1939. And in 1948, President Harry S. Truman adopted the number as his campaign theme song. Yet for Cochran this 100-year-old song was too racy for a middle schooler. It was obvious how he would be voting.
The educators pushed on mightily. Knight explained further how this module is purposefully based on “a graphic novel to highlight different types of writing and style.” Brady pointed out, “It’s the only Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel…It’s very highly acclaimed.” He noted that because the modules build on each other, striking the Holocaust module (which would be necessary with the removal of its anchor text) would leave the students less prepared for the next one. Pierce responded, “Don’t tell me there’s not another book out there.”
The board discussed with Bennett, the lawyer, the possibility of redacting more than the eight words cited as offensive and a picture or two. Bennett said that there could be copyright issues doing that. In any event, Shamblin suggested, this wouldn’t do: “It’s more offensive than that.” He added this kicker: “I have not seen the book and read the whole book. I read the reviews.” The only item on the meeting’s agenda was what to do about Maus, and this board member had not bothered to glance at it.
Moments later, the board voted. All 10 members chose to boot Maus. Not one vote for teaching reality. This is a loss for the students and their teachers. They will miss out on a literary breakthrough and a crucial slice of history. (A 2020 poll found that 63 percent of adults under the age of 40 did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.) What’s worse for the kids is that their intellectual development is being held hostage by board members who are stuck in another era, who find vulgarity in an old pop song, and who cannot be bothered to do their own homework. The best hope is that this foolishness from the board will prompt students to read Maus on their own—the book sold out on Amazon as the result of this sad kerfuffle—and, more important, take a hard look at these censorious overseers and their closed-mindedness. That will provide a good education for the teenagers of McMinn County.