Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Banning books an exercise in fear and folly

In 1994, I purchased a copy of “The Wild Party” after hearing an interview with Art Spiegelman about his illustrated version of the Gatsby-esque poem by Joseph Moncure March. 

It’s a dark little book, written a year before the Great Depression, in which a gin-soaked party spins out, well, wildly and ends very badly for most of the attendees.  

Last fall in a piece in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Harris wondered if March knew the world was on the cusp of change when he wrote his poem, considering “there are few things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it.”   

Certainly COVID has made everyone feel like we are living at the end of something, which may be contributing to the current increase in book banning. If the school board in Tennessee that recently nixed Spiegelman’s anti-Nazi graphic novel “Maus” ever saw “The Wild Party,” it might try eradicating the author’s entire canon. 

In his recent article, “My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote: 

“Those who seek to ban books are wrong no matter how dangerous books can be. Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.” 

Like Nguyen, I own some well-written books, published in prior decades, that contain representations of people we recognize today as inappropriate, if not downright racist. These include several of Dr. Seuss’s books as well as the entire collection of Tintin comic books, all of which my children loved reading. 

Yes, there are portrayals of people in those books that are completely unacceptable —my children know this because we’ve discussed it. As a result, I trust their intelligence and compassion to recognize negative stereotypes anywhere and question why they are allowed. 

I’ve never understood why some parents, in something of a cyclical manner, want to ban books. New York Times parenting columnist Jessica Grose believes it’s about the illusion of parental control, though “delusion”  may be more appropriate. 

A 2019 survey reported that “more than half of American children owned a smartphone by the age of 11.” On that little screen, children can see many things they should not. Tell me you have parental controls on your child’s smartphone or, better yet, refuse to give them one? Great, but what about their friends?  

There is no shortage of books on how to talk to kids about pornography, and sex in general so children won’t turn to online porn as a form of sex education. And for good reason. In 2008, when smartphones were still novel, 90% of boys and 66% of girls had viewed online pornography before they were 18.  

Before the internet existed, children clandestinely read and shared books low on literary value and high on prurience. I was delighted that Grose, who’s easily 15 years my junior, revealed passing around “Flowers in the Attic” with her friends as a child. 

V.C. Andrews’ “classic” was equally popular when I was a girl. An actively evil grandmother locks her grandchildren in the attic while the passively evil mother seeks a new husband after the death of the children’s father, indicating that children are a deal breaker in snagging a man (so much misogyny to unpack there, whew). The story then devolves into a penny arcade of various horrors, including incest. 

The books being banned today, however, are not pulpy paperbacks. Many are literary classics dealing with difficult subjects, such as the Holocaust and slavery. Should works on violent, dehumanizing events in history be sanitized? 

I’d counter that teens, who live in the real world in which atrocities are reported daily, safely learn to deal with the complexity of life when they read about bad things happening to good people in books. 

Enslaving another human being has no upside for the enslaved and there were no “good masters” in the United States or elsewhere. When Toni Morrison wrote visceral accounts of the abuses committed by enslavers in her book “Beloved,” she drove home why parents would go to extremes to prevent their children from being enslaved.  

Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” in which Nazis are cats and Jews mice, is not a work of fiction. It’s a postmodern rendering of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.  

While some books are banned for violent content, others are banned for telling the stories of people who are not white, or not heterosexual, or not Christian. 

Nonwhite, nonheterosexual and non-Christian children are inundated with books about people who are not like them. Why wouldn’t they want to read good books about people with whom they can identify?  

As for children who are white, heterosexual and Christian, how are they harmed when learning that not everyone experiences the world and life as they do? Good books about people from nondominant parts of society are additive, not subtractive. 

The only risk in reading something written from the perspective of someone who is, in some way, different than the reader, is that of cultivating empathy. In my book, that’s something to embrace, not fear. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 20, 2022.


Long friendship is rich in unexpected ways

“Your friendship may well be lifelong,” I tell students when I see them hit it off in my classes. That they might also become close with each other’s families is an added bonus I let them discover for themselves. 

In the winter of 1992, I met Jen Tressler in a plant pathology class on Ohio State University’s Ag campus, where students working on degrees in agriculture and veterinary medicine were seemingly sequestered. 

Our professor was nearing retirement and while I cannot remember his name, I easily recall his face. Generous eyebrows, as dark as his thick hair was white, valanced his bright eyes. His nose, below which he wore a generous smile, was sturdy enough for the occasional tug he gave it. Syrian grandparents were elemental in the overall composition. 

Plant pathology fulfilled a capstone science requirement following two courses in botany. We studied plant diseases, their vectors and how to reduce or eliminate them. Not surprisingly, the roster was largely filled with men intending to farm after college.  

The oddballs in the course, Jen (who was also taking the course for the capstone requirement) and I sat together. A few weeks into the quarter, we felt as though the class was sponsored by a major pesticide company — the solution given to almost every disease and pest was to apply noxious chemicals. 

Jen and I discussed alternative approaches to pesticides with our professor. His eyes twinkled as he listened closely before suggesting, as any wise teacher would, that she and I teach a class on the subject. 

I’m not sure what, if any, impact our hourlong presentation had on the other students, but it cemented our friendship. 

After we graduated from OSU, Jen worked at an organic farm in Kansas before spending two years in Honduras with the Peace Corps, where she taught farmers sustainable practices. When she returned, she met and married Milan, they changed their last names to Marvelous and settled in Philadelphia. 

For eight years, Jen and I stayed connected through landlines and letters written with ink and paper. But since January 2000, when I moved to Northeast Ohio, Jen has visited me regularly when she stays with her parents, who live in Painesville.  

That same year we taught a class together, Jen’s parents drove down from Painesville and took us to lunch. I found her mom, a first-grade teacher who is now retired, very energetic and engaging. 

But it’s Mr. Tressler who I’ve come to know over the years. 

Until 2003 I lived in Cleveland, just off the Shoreway exit for West 49th Street. Mr. Tressler, who worked in facilities for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, stopped by for coffee and a chat whenever he was called out to Max Hayes High School, just blocks from my house. 

Born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, Mr. Tressler comes off as no-nonsense and a bit crusty. I’ve only heard about his temper, yet understood it to be as readily available to him as a favorite hammer is in the tool belt of a carpenter.  

So, too, is kindness. Once, on a sleety January day when I was 8 months pregnant, Mr. Tressler changed a tire on my Toyota Sienna (no easy feat), on the Route 8 ramp behind The Chapel at the University of Akron. 

Like many seemingly gruff characters, scratch the surface and you’ll find Mr. Tressler a softie, especially with his family. That’s become even more apparent in the months since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. 

After moving to Akron, I’ve met up with Jen and her dad many times when they come to town for our tag-popping emporiums. In case you didn’t know, Akron has killer thrift stores — clearly better than those in Philadelphia or Cleveland. 

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with Jen, her eldest daughter and Mr. Tressler at Village Discount on Waterloo Road.  

“I’m pretty sure he’ll remember you,” said Jen on the phone earlier that day, making my stomach drop.   

But, boy, did he.  

Much of the afternoon, Mr. Tressler reminded me of things I’d forgotten until he shared them. Like a lunch years ago at a downtown restaurant where he loved his hamburger. 

“I have dementia, you know,” he told me when he struggled to remember the name of the restaurant. (It was The Lockview.) 

Never overweight, but of sturdy, Ukrainian stock (Jen’s daughters call him “Gigi” and her mom “Baba”), Mr. Tressler is now considerably thinner. As a result, the blue of eyes, so much like those of my friend, really pop and he looked dashing in his Carhartt jacket and brimmed felt hat. 

After thrifting, we ate lunch at my house. I told Mr. Tressler his eyes were as brilliantly blue as those of Paul Newman’s. He wanted to know if Newman was still alive.  

“Sadly, no,” I told him. 

When they left that afternoon, Mr. Tressler, whose first name I only recently learned is John, lingered at the doorway after Jen and her daughter had gotten into their car. 

“Well, it’s been good knowing you,” he told me, holding my gaze with his own. 

“Take care, love,” I replied as I struggled to stay dry-eyed in the face of Jen’s father, a man who long ago became my friend, too. 

This was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 6, 2022.


Rules have changed on making a living

I am one of America’s 7 million working-poor citizens. My youngest two children and I are on Medicaid and for a few months each year we qualify for food stamps. Like many families living below the poverty level, I receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. Last year, a portion of my EITC, through the Child Tax Credit, was disbursed for six months in a row.  

Created as part of the Biden administration’s COVID relief package passed last March, the CTC gave monthly payments to qualifying families starting on July 15. Through its Build Back Better bill, the administration wanted to extend the CTC but with the bill stalled, the original deadline held and payments ceased.  

When it became clear that December’s CTC payment was, for now, the final one, proponents decried the loss. According to a study conducted by Columbia University, the CTC payments reduced the U.S. child poverty rate from 16% to 12%, or about 3 million children. 

The detractors of the CTC fall into roughly two camps: Those who blame the poor for being poor and others who deem the CTC as an imperfect solution to child poverty and, therefore, should be abandoned without first implementing anything better. In other words, the old “letting perfect be the enemy of good.” 

Blaming poor people for their situation is nothing new. And, yet, in recent decades, those who do have become more strident. For most of the 20th century, plenty of conservatives knew intimately that poverty is not essentially a character flaw. After all, many of them lived through the Great Depression and the lean years of World War II. 

In 1964, the Johnson administration introduced its War on Poverty legislation, which sought to solve the endemic problems that leave so many citizens behind in the world’s richest country. Instead, in the ensuing decades, legislation created by politicians of both parties (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton) was more of a war on poor people. 

For three decades, I have worked hard and played by the rules. 

A first-generation college graduate, I took a smattering of classes after high school, only getting serious at age 21 when I enrolled at Ohio State University. I graduated five years later in 1992 with two bachelor’s degrees and paid off my student loans in less than two years. 

But then the rules on moving up in life changed. 

Federal funding for higher education, starting with the G.I. Bill in 1944, helped create the largest middle class in the history of the world. For several decades, the halls of higher education were no longer the exclusive domain of the rich.  

That tide changed starting with the Reagan administration. Using data that showed college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than those with only high school degrees, funding to colleges and students was slashed. This has continued until it is now nearly impossible to earn a bachelor’s degree without an insurmountable mountain of debt. 

In 2010, I graduated from Kent State with an MFA and $30k in student loan debt. It has since mushroomed to $40k even though I pay more than the minimum payments.  

Like many Americans, I am a gig worker. I teach at the University of Akron, I write freelance, I proofread for court reporters and I own a rental property. 

Also like many American workers, I didn’t choose this, but have few alternatives because American employers have moved positions at an ever-accelerating pace from actual employment to contract work. 

Why? It’s simple. Employers don’t have to pay contract employees living wages or provide them with benefits. This is a profit-driven strategy not only adopted by large companies in the commercial sector, but throughout the economy. 

A prime example is my work teaching at a university.

Based upon a review of best practices, the Modern Language Association recommends that part-time faculty receive, as minimum compensation, $11,500 for teaching a three-credit-hour semester course. Shoot, I’d be thrilled with half that.

As adjunct faculty, I make just under $3,000 for a three-credit-hour semester course, which is about $127/week (after deductions) for a position that requires a master’s degree, the same one I suspect I’ll die before paying off. In order for freshmen to learn to write successful academic papers, my students write, and I grade, a lot.

As a result, I earn less than $5 an hour teaching.

This scenario is not unique to my university or even Ohio. Colleges and universities nationwide are ever increasingly replacing what were once full-time teaching positions with adjunct faculty who receive subpar pay and little to no benefits.

This and other forms of indentured servitude is why, in this post-vaccine phase of the pandemic, workers are not flocking back to demanding jobs that offer no possibility of earning a living wage.

From the rearview mirror, I would agree that some of the choices I made early in life resulted in me having less income. But, in the world as it was then, there was no way to foretell this.

Research shows that families receiving the CTC spent it mostly on food and education. I used to buy reliable transportation — the base-model, used car I purchased last June. It was a godsend to set up a car payment to occur a few days after the monthly CTC payments hit my bank account.

So yes, the CTC, which simply provided some of the EITC funds monthly instead of in one lump sum as a federal tax refund, is not a solution to decades of rising economic inequality.

But it helped America’s working poor families make monthly ends meet in an economy that, after 1979, no longer rewards the hard or smart work of the majority of Americans. That the CTC should be maintained, even at amounts lower than those paid in 2020 as a part of COVID relief, is a no brainer.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2022.