Education Opinion

Why the Librarian Is Right to Reject Melania Trump’s Gift of Dr. Seuss

By Nancy Flanagan — October 10, 2017 3 min read
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Every now and then, someone who reads this blog suggests that I should “stick to teaching music"—or, sometimes, if the edu-topic is really incendiary, get out of public education altogether.

That’s how I felt reading Mitch Albom’s snarky column on the Cambridge, Mass., school librarian who posted an open letter to the First Lady, on Mrs. Trump’s “gift” of 10 Dr. Seuss books for a Cambridge school library: Mitch Albom should stick to sports writing. Or continuing his lucrative “heaven” franchise—perhaps something like The Five Books Children Should Read on Tuesdays Because I Said So in My Phone Call from Heaven.

Liz Phipps Soeiro, the media specialist who wrote the letter, has drawn strong support and praise from her fellow public school educators, in making a number of valid points:

  • She works in a very advantaged public school, well-supported by resources and human capital—which is precisely the reason it is so successful
  • Other schools and children need and deserve the gift of books far more than hers
  • The current administration seems bent on further weakening public education in multiple ways
  • Dr. Seuss is a “tired and worn ambassador” for children’s literature

The tone of the letter is respectful, but firm:

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding.

Soeiro closes by pointing out that there is an excellent resource at the First Lady’s fingertips: Dr. Carla Hayden, a one-time children’s librarian, now the Librarian of Congress. She lists some alternate titles for consideration.

In his column, Albom accuses Soeiro of being “artfully nasty,” then proceeds with some artful nastiness of his own. Some excerpts:

She managed to work in some struggles her privileged school did face, like the battle "(to) dismantle the systemic white supremacy in our institution." She also suggested her own reading list of 10 different titles, including a tale of a Pakistani boy battling bullying, a Haitian mother put in jail for being undocumented, and poems by refugee children from Central America. Why does the librarian make the call here? When the White House contacts your school, isn't there a principal or superintendent to step up—or at least step in before a rude refusal is issued? Remember, this is a public school; the librarian works for the city and therefore the taxpayers of Cambridge. (In case you're wondering, she was not fired or punished.) But she did teach her school kids a lesson in how to be snooty and ungrateful. If I were raising my hand in this librarian's class, my first question might be, "As you are obviously a well-educated person, did you ever hear of ...manners?"

Well. A couple of things that Mitch Albom is overlooking here:

Melania Trump (in spite of all the media articles that claim she “had her say” about the incident) didn’t hand pick the 10 volumes from a bookstore, while thinking fondly about the children of Cambridge, Mass. Some overworked administrative assistant did all the legwork here (sending books by pricey second-day air and including expensive WH bookplates), just another public relations obligation for the White House. Manners and gratitude had nothing to do with this gesture.

Educators are well used to “gifts” that come with strings, going all the way up to Race to the Top grants. Do what the Department of Ed wants—in this case, get high test scores—and maybe there’s something coming your way.

Schools do need resources, many of them desperately, but they need to have control over the freebies and bargains given by everyone from well-meaning families in the community to the federal government. Free technology if your students watch a slanted news show with commercial advertisements every morning. Free books suggesting that there are two sides to climate change, for your “science” curriculum. And on and on, right down to the easily broken computers and used textbooks that end up in the poorest public schools.

Public schools have not only a right, but an obligation, to look every gift horse squarely in the mouth. Because it’s the children they are responsible for who are riding. We rightfully expect public school educators to choose excellent literature that children can relate to—and to work to dismantle white supremacy—a term that Albom tries to diminish via the use of quotes.

And did you catch the reference to letting a mere librarian make the call, when a superintendent should be handling Important Affairs like this one? Just a whiff of hierarchy there, and perhaps sexism, suggesting that those in the classroom should know their place.

I think the thing that made the story so juicy was Soeiro’s declaration that folks are now taking another look at Dr. Seuss—questioning the subliminal and not-so-hidden messages in his writing and text. Any number of thoughtful articles have bubbled up, tracing Theodore Geisel’s caricatures back in history, and questioning whether they have had a long-term impact on young children in the United States.

Stephen Sawchuk has a fine piece in Education Week on the subject: Is ‘The Cat in the Hat’ Racist?

These are precisely the kinds of questions with which teachers and librarians should be wrestling. Like 85 million other Baby Boomers, I learned to read with Dick and Jane, their little sister Sally, their stay-at-home Mother and Father, who went off to work in a suit and homburg every morning. It never occurred to me that black 1st graders may have wondered why everyone they were reading about was white and lived in a house with trees and a picket fence.

Until I started teaching, that is.

The issues Liz Phipps Soeiro raises are critical and vital in providing a good and equitable education for every child, and she discusses them with knowledge and confidence. She’s the media specialist I’d want in my library.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.