First they came for the schools. Then they came for the library. Now they’re coming for the schools again. And that’s just the last 12 months. On and on it will go, until censorship and intolerance are spent forces. The burden lies with those of us who believe in freedom and decency to keep sounding the trumpet and keep voting.
Yes, freedom and decency are on the ballot yet again here in Great Neck, in this Tuesday’s election for two positions on the Great Neck Public Schools Board of Trustees: the freedom to think, to read, to discuss, to inquire, to learn, and to grow; and the decency to respect, dignify, acknowledge, and embrace the worth, value, and equality of every one of our families, friends, and neighbors.
Two candidates clearly and unambiguously support the freedom to learn about the world we live in and the imperative to respect and nurture every child in our schools for who they are and for the lives their families live. They are Rebecca Sassouni, the current board president running for reelection, and Joanne Chan, the former co-chair of the United Parent-Teacher Council. These are two extraordinary women with advanced degrees and successful careers who raised their children in the Great Neck public schools and served as leaders in school governance at every level before asking the voters to trust them with the responsibility of serving on the school board. Their own families immigrated to this country for its freedoms and its promise to give all people of every background and identity the opportunity to succeed.
The alternative is the nationwide movement whose tentacles are grasping at our schools and library here in Great Neck to restrict what we can learn and think about, and to demonize “others” to the point where these “other” children come to believe that they are not welcome, not valued, not safe among us; that they are alone. Terrorizing these children is just collateral damage in their culture war.
They have an ever-expanding list of books they want to ban. One candidate on the ballot this Tuesday publicly demanded that the board ban the novel, “If You Come Softly,” which chronicles the relationship between a black teenage boy and a white and Jewish teenage girl, because “why teach white children that all white people are racist?” (The book suggests no such thing.)
But now it’s more than just books. Censorship has a way of metastasizing, both in its subject matter and its mechanisms. Ban efforts have now spread to whole topics, subjects, and curricula. At colleges there are efforts to ban certain majors and whole departments writ large. There are even campaigns to defund and close libraries entirely in some jurisdictions.
Racism exists, alongside other -isms and -phobias. We cannot be afraid to learn about them, particularly through the lens of those who have experienced them. As mild as the depictions of racism are in “If You Come Softly,” for example, they give the reader a feel for these kids’ experiences, including the boy’s challenge being one of a few black teens in his school, the girl’s disillusionment with a sibling who questions the wisdom of her interracial romance, and their joint experience with racist assumptions and public disapproval of their relationship.
That’s what art does: it allows the reader of a book (or viewer of a painting or watcher of a movie) to better comprehend and think about either their own experiences or to inhabit a world different from their own to better understand the experiences of those living in it. It is, literally, “learning,” and it is essential to the mission of our schools and our library.
Understanding the world as others must navigate it doesn’t undermine your family’s experience or your own challenges in navigating this world. Nor does it make you complicit in wrongs done to other people. But suffocating discussion and education of wrongs done to others does.
I will not be complicit, and I urge Great Neck voters not to be, either.
We need to get back to elections being about how this year’s school budget might be too much of this or too little of that; or how to improve the district’s already remarkable metrics; or how to best ensure the appointment of the district’s next educational CEO, its superintendent; or how to further students’ knowledge and skills in science, the humanities, arts, or athletics.
These are really important questions, which ought to be publicly debated. I’d love to hear what the book-ban candidates have to say on these issues. I wish they would have accepted the invitation of the League of Women Voters to debate. But the playbook is to hide behind banalities, avoid public debates and scrutiny, and hope that the public is lulled into missing what’s really on the ballot — freedom and decency.
I will not be lulled, and I urge Great Neck voters not to be either.
Please vote for freedom and decency this Tuesday: vote for Rebecca Sassouni and Joanne Chan.
The author was a successful candidate for the Great Neck Library board of Trustees last year