Oh Sh*t, Ohio Student Noticed Top Secret Anti-Racist Message Of ‘The Sneetches’

Oh Sh*t, Ohio Student Noticed Top Secret Anti-Racist Message Of 'The Sneetches'

An official for an Ohio school district stepped in to stop a third-grade teacher from reading The Sneetches aloud to a class after one of the kids in the class pointed out that the story was a lot like racial segregation and the bad old days. Smart kid, because that’s precisely what the 1961 Dr. Seuss children’s classic is about. The book was the last of several books being read by Shale Meadows Elementary teacher Mandy Robek as part of an NPR “Planet Money” podcast illustrating simple economics lessons in children’s books, which meant that the podcast recorded the entire embarrassing incident.

Amanda Beeman, comms director for the Olentangy Local School District near Columbus, stopped Ms. Robek from finishing the book after one of the kids observed that the story is “almost like what happened back then, how people were treated […] Like, white people disrespected Black people …” Beeman shut down the reading, saying she wasn’t comfortable because it seemed more about “differences with race and everything like that” than about economics, and can third graders handle such weighty topics that a third grader just mentioned?

It’s pretty friggin’ incredible. There’s also a full transcript here.

As the Columbus Dispatch explains, podcast reporter Erika Beras spent the entire day in Robek’s class; the kids had done math, had recess, and so on, as well as hearing Robek read from six books that Beras had selected (with advice from economists) to illustrate economic lessons. The district had agreed to all six, including The Sneetches, with the only stipulation being that there shouldn’t be any political content in the books. We suppose the adults at the district didn’t notice what little kids saw easily.

Just to review, the book is about two kinds of Sneetches: Some have stars on their bellies, and others have none upon thars. The star-belly Sneetches are unduly privileged, and won’t let the plain-belly Sneetches come to their weenie roasts, ever. A shrewd huckster, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, shows up with a machine that’ll put stars on a Sneetch’s belly — for a fee.

Unwilling to tolerate all that passing, the star-bellied Sneetches pay McBean to remove their stars so they’ll know who’s really the elite, and after much foolishness they all realize how stupid it all is and decide that everyone should be treated equally, and the story ends happily. At least until John Roberts rules that plain-bellied Sneetches don’t need their voting rights protected anymore.

The podcast had so far gone pretty well, with kids recognizing several simple principles in economics, until one student realized The Sneetches is a fable about discrimination. Oh no! That’s a thinkin’!

An excerpt, and notice how well Robek helps focus the kids’s comments on how the book is unfolding. I like her a lot.

KATIE: That’s kind of mean because, like, just ’cause their bellies are plain and they don’t have stars in it doesn’t mean that they’re not special.

ROBEK: Right. Doesn’t mean they’re not special. […]

NOAH: It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated…


NOAH: …Like, disrespected…

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I think that book was made in that time.

NOAH: Like, white people disrespected Black people, but then, they might stand up in the book.

ROBEK: Oh, so we’re — let’s keep reading to find out if they do stand up maybe a little bit. So when you say stand up — get included?

NOAH: Yeah.

ROBEK: Yeah, that’s what we’re hoping for, right?

Just as Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up with his capitalist exploitation of unequal social status, Beeman, who’d been observing all day, jumps in, and overrides Beras’s insistence that the economic lesson is starting right now.

BEEMAN: I don’t know if I feel comfortable with book being one of the ones featured. I just feel like this isn’t teaching anything about economics, and this is a little bit more about differences with race and everything like that. So do you mind, Mrs. Robek, if we pause this book.

BERAS: I mean, we have a list here of all the things this is about — preferences, open markets, economic loss.

BEEMAN: Yeah, I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it. Are you OK with that?

Again, it’s the third graders who are making the connections, with no intervention from the teacher or the reporter. Both kids who did so didn’t seem to have any trouble understanding that the past is not the same as today, either, unlike the Moms for Censorship who fear books about the Civil Rights Movement because they make white people feel bad. Seems like the kids are perfectly able to understand the context of the book — and probably the economic bits too, if only they’d gotten that far.

The kids go silent, and then want to know what’s going on, and ask what happens next and how the book ends, and Beeman suggests “You know what? I think that’s one that maybe we can ask, you know, with our parents at home.”

Later, Beras checked back with the school district, receiving an email making clear that the district fears the loonies who’ve been making life hell for educators. It said “school districts across the nation are being scrutinized for book selections in our schools on both sides of the spectrum,” which is true if by “both sides of the spectrum” (a spectrum by definition is not binary) you mean “Republicans and also Proud Boys.”

Beeman also explained to the Columbus Dispatch that the problem was that the school had intended to “feature the great work that Mrs. Robek does” but that Beeman had made “a personal judgment call we shouldn’t do the reading because of some of the other themes and undertones that were unfolding that were not shared that we would be discussing with parents,” because again, you don’t want to stir up the crazies.

This is where we are: You can’t read The Sneetches because a kid might notice discrimination is wrong. And that’s exactly what red state governors and legislators have been accomplishing.

She added that the school district is “really not about suppressing any viewpoints or dialogues,” which it did, actually.

In addition, so everyone will have something to groan about, she also insisted “We do not ban any books,” which is true, because all she did was ban a teacher from reading one.

Congratulations, rightwing hoax-panic over “critical race theory.”

As for that kid Noah, I can hardly wait for his thoughts on the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” which may be too subtle for the Olentangy Local School District.

[Columbus Dispatch / Planet Money on NPR]

What do you think?