Award winning children's author Todd Parr had a book banned by the school district in the small town of Erie, Illinois this spring.
Yeah, that Todd Parr. He is such a badass. Always writing about love and acceptance and puppies and things like that. Total thug.
Parr's offending book, The Family Book, was banned because of a single page with the text, "Some families have two moms or two dads," accompanied by his signature stylized drawings of two moms and two dads. A perfectly factual statement that drew the ire and fear of small town America. This begs the question, How does this even happen?
Based on local news accounts, it appears that The Family Book was used as part of a larger curriculum approved by the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to teach about diversity and tolerance in elementary schools. Seems that some Erie parents took offense to the single page in the book about a family structure sometimes involving two moms or two dads. These parents brought their concerns to the local school board that, like every fine tuned bureaucracy under the sun, created a panel to review the materials being presented to the elementary aged kids (grades K-4 in Erie).
Interestingly, the panel voted in favor of the book and the curriculum as is. They found the book appropriate for elementary age children and embraced the mission of educating children about tolerance and diversity. Well, the parents of Erie would have none of that. At least a loud and vocal portion of the parents of Erie would have none of that. When the panel's recommendations were presented to the school board, to appease the homophobic masses (75-100 in attendance at the meeting) of Erie, the board did the cowardly thing of not only banning the book, but also of limiting the use of the GLSEN curriculum to grades 5-12.
What this means is that as of school year 2012-2013, integrated lessons about bullying, diversity, and tolerance will only be provided to older students. Those youngsters in K-4 can fend for themselves, yo. Or, you know, receive that type of important life lesson at home. From a parent who clearly fears diversity and tolerance. Ugh. Brad Cox (Oh the irony -- I would make a joke, but that would be mean), Erie School District Superintendant, on interviews on CNN and local news stations simply reiterated the company line -- the content about diverse families was not appropriate for elementary age children. This despite HIS OWN APPOINTED PANEL stating the opposite.
On the one hand, this story is heartbreaking. Hate is a learned concept and clearly the adults in authority of Erie, Illinois are, if not promoting hate, certainly promoting fear and disdain. If something or someone is "different," the message sent by this action is that difference is unacceptable. It is to be shunned, rejected, avoided, put back into the proverbial closet. A resident of Erie, a young woman in her 20s, was interviewed by KWQC out of the Quad Cities on a piece that aired last week. "By the time we got to middle school and high school, it was too late. People were already being made fun of because they were "different." Different, of course, is code for gay. This makes me angry.
On the other hand, what good does anger do? Might more progress be made if this backwards, regressive, prejudicial thinking could be better understood? Brought out into the light and honest conversation be had about how and why these parents and this school board believe their children would be better served by marginalizing gay and lesbian families? What do we know about Erie, anyway? Well, let's see:
Per the town's official webiste, here is Erie, Illinois (italic snark is mine):
- Erie is looking for commercial and industrial growth. Good luck with that.
- Winner of the Governor's Home Town Award in 1999. No great honor, considering Governor Ryan went on to be a felon.
- "We have many fine churches of varied denominations." My guess is this means Methodist and Baptist.
- "We take pride in our most important resource, our citizens. Volunteers from all walks of life strive to make Erie the best it can be." But not two moms or two dads. Or probably Jews or Muslims. Let's not even get into two Jewish moms or two Muslim dads and a Jewish mom and Muslin dad creates friction all around this great big globe of ours, so we can't pin that on Erie.
- As of the census of 2000, there were 1,589 people, 630 households, and 466 families residing in the village
- The racial makeup of the village was 98.80% White, 0.25% African American, 0.13% Native American, 0.38% from other races, and 0.44% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.88% of the population.
- There were 630 households out of which 33.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 61.4% were married couples living together, 8.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 26.0% were non-families. If anyone can tell me what a "non-family" is, you will be the happy winner, winner of a chicken dinner, and it is not singles, because they have that stat accounted for (23.7%).
- The median income for a household in the village was $41,806, and the median income for a family was $46,435. Males had a median income of $35,000 versus $21,447 for females. The per capita income for the village was $18,775. About 4.7% of families and 5.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 8.3% of those under age 18 and 3.8% of those age 65 or over.
It would be easy to make this into a 'small towns suck' litany, but I happen to be a fan of small towns. My Mom and Dad, lifelong Chicagoans, born and raised, retired to a minute town, Apple River, Illinois, population 366 (2010 census). The reality is that small towns do not have the diversity that large towns or cities have. They are lacking culture and art and exposure to different ways of life. But that doesn't make them bad places. They have, often, lovely networks of neighbors and community initiatives that put cities to shame. Random gun violence is at a minimum in most small towns. Traffic is non existant. Fresh air and hospitality are often in equal abundance. Small towns are fine and dandy -- it is small minds that suck.
But no place, large or small, population 300 or 300,000 or 3,000,000 is immune from stupidity or ignorance or problems. I can practically guarantee you right now that there is a child in Erie, Illinois who is gay or lesbian, and afraid. And that 26% of "non-families" listed on the Erie, Illinois website? Yeah, you can be pretty certain that within that non-family statistic are at least one or two of the families that Todd Parr was speaking of, with two moms or two dads.
The Erie, Illinois school district can ban all the books they wish to, they can rely on families to teach their little ones about the mysterious and different ways of the world, but in the end, the truth is the truth -- some families have two moms or two dads. Just like Todd Parr said.
Full Disclosure Time: I happen to be a big fan of Todd Parr. In 2007 I wrote to him to ask for his help decorating Donna's stem cell transplant room, e.g., a poster or something, as I REFUSED to look at Dora or some other licensed character staring at me from the walls for a month as Donna recovered. Todd sent along the nicest note, a few signed books, and a DVD that both Donna and Mary Tyler Son have enjoyed. We met him in summer 2009 and Donna blushed. Yeah, total badass thug, that Todd Parr.