Is ‘Persepolis’ Too Much for 7th Grade CPS Students?

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel masterpiece is no longer appropriate for tweens in Chicago Public Schools. But how graphic is it?

My traditional Native American art career began and ended with my very first portrait: Stick Indian Taking a Piss in My Backyard.
As I circulated the original print around the classroom, Mrs. Schluter intercepted and confiscated my art.

Censorship, I might cry now. Freedom of expression, I would write in editorials to the tribal newspaper.
In third grade, though, I stood alone in the corner, faced the wall, and waited for the punishment to end.
I’m still waiting.
—Sherman Alexie, “Indian Education”

An odd story broke out last night about Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Chicago Public Schools. I think it started on the blog CPS Chatter:

Also, censorship is alive and well and living in CPS.  This letter went out to Lane Tech staff today letting him know that stories of women coming of age in the Iranian revolution are not appropriate materials regardless of what the Oscars say.

The letter was from the principal of Lane Tech, informing staff that a directive had been given during the March 11 Chief of Schools meeting that Persepolis was to be taken out of “all classrooms and the Library." Persepolis is an extraordinarily well-regarded comic novel, one of the greatest in the brief history of the form, and pulling it out of the library invoked the specter of censorship. People got upset quickly, and the word “ban” was invoked, which scares the crap out of people.

But then another e-mail went out: "A second email, sent from the principal later the same day, revised the previous directive, exempting removal from the library.”

So it was a bit confusing. Now CPS says their only intention was to stop teaching it to 7th graders (it’s in the 7th grade literary content framework with the intention of teaching the concept of identity, alongside Brent Staples’s “Black Men and Public Space,” one of my favorite essays, and Alexie’s “Indian Education").

A spokeswoman for the district said district staff sent an email directing the books to be removed after teachers in the Austin-North Lawndale area raised concerns about the book. But she said the directive was not vetted, and didn’t reflect the district’s intent to simply stop 7th-graders from reading the book.

“The message got lost in translation, but the bottom line is, we never sent out a directive to ban the book. We want to make sure there’s an appropriate way to teach it to students given the graphic nature of the novel,” said spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

“We’re not saying remove these from buildings altogether,” she said.

So where it stands now is that it’s okay for “juniors and seniors and for students in Advanced Placement classes.” But, according to the official statement, “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.” Eighth through tenth grades are still up in the air.

It’s been awhile since I read Persepolis; I got it for my mom, whom I’m not in the habit of giving particularly graphic graphic novels to (Ayako, or My Friend Dahmer, say, as good as they are; My Friend Dahmer would actually be a good high school teaching tool in some ways, because of its devastating and humane approach to alienation, bullying, and familial dysfunction, but I’m not waiting up).

There is torture and violence in it, but Satrapi’s style is extremely austere, so the portrayal is more stark and haunting than vivid. Which can be just as, or more affecting; I saw Schindler’s List on a school trip in sixth grade, and the scene that remained with me was not one of the more graphic ones, but that of ashes from a camp falling like snow.

There’s more. But that’s the worst, so to speak, of it. (I think the word “shit” is used once. If they get as far as Persepolis 2, there’s some mild drug use and I guess what you’d call “adult themes.") It’s chilling, but then again so’s Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which ends—spoiler alert—with a woman getting stoned to death; it’s also on the curriculum. There’s also The Hunger Games, an excerpt from The Interrupters, and short texts on Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, all of which deal with horrifying violence in their own ways.

I have some sympathy for CPS. It’s difficult to figure out how and when to expose children to the horrors of existence (or expose parents to exposing their children to the horrors of existence, which is usually the problem). Yes: they’ve seen worse than Persepolis by the time they’re 14, but educators are wary to turn the loss of innocence into a race with reality. At any rate, it’s not a race they’re going to win.

Persepolis strikes me as appropriate, because it’s about coming into consciousness, and Satrapi is particularly gifted at capturing the flowering of her own awareness. But they’re powerful images, and they frighten: adults sometimes more than children.

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1 year ago
Posted by kindergartenmom

So it's not o.k for seventh graders to learn about the violence and oppression of the Iranian revolution but it is o.k. to teach kindergarten children about the horrors of slavery in our country.

So many high school kids these days find a career in the military one of their only options as the cost of higher ed seems out of their reach and job prospects are slim. While they are willing to fight and potentially die fighting regimes like the ones described in Persepolis, CPS doesn't want them to read about them?

Does CPS not realize the seventh graders they are trying to "protect" from Persepolis live in Chicago?

1 year ago
Posted by KavehAdelCartoonist

As a cartoonist, a survivor of a revolution and a war, an immigrant and a contemporary to Ms. Satrapi whom I respect dearly I was appalled by this strange decision.

Afterall, if I were to attempt this in Iran I would be tortured, killed and never heard of again. But again, I live in America and I draw about human rights, freedom of speech with civil liberties to pursue information and happiness.

I certainly will not shelter my kids from learning about the evil and the good in this world. I will give them a choice, provide them with the means to access all they have the right to know, empower them to think for themselves. Anything less would be against all that humanity stands for.

1 year ago
Posted by NoIranWar

Kindergartenmom apparently has not read this book, the fact is that the torture in the book is actually executed by those, that in all practical purposes, American soldiers would be sent to bring back to power, meaning our friends throughout the Middle East, similar to Shah of Iran which our CIA brough back to power in 1953 coup d'etat.
I have been guest to several schools in my area to talk about the period of this book and Iran. This is practically the ONLY source of information about current situations of Iran in the whole social science curriculum of public schools in this country. A country, perhaps the next target for American missiles and drones, should not even have a mention in school system? What happened to " thou shall know ti enemy!". Just imagine what would an 18 years old soldier do if he was sent to destroy a country he had intimately related with in 9th grade? Good job mayor Emanuel.

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