For a minute there, dignity was in danger of being deemed obscene.
And perseverance was looking downright subversive.
Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the children’s books “Henry Aaron’s Dream” and “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” were judged safe enough for the students of Duval County schools to borrow from library shelves again.
Now, we could bicker about the wisdom of the Florida law that led to these books being placed under review months ago and we could search for underlying motives behind the passage of that particular legislation, or we could just do what those books originally intended:
Learn important and inspiring life lessons.
The books may have been written for elementary-age children but plenty of adults — and I’m certainly not immune — occasionally forget the magic and wonder of a hero’s journey. And, make no mistake, the perseverance and dignity of Aaron and Clemente make them American heroes.
They beat poverty. They beat racism. They beat the odds. They became hugely famous, and chose to use their platforms to help others facing misfortune around the world. That’s the stuff of heroes. And of children’s books.
At a news conference earlier this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed to agree. He said the removal of the Clemente book was a “joke” and suggested it was the work of a teachers union for “political” purposes. He said the state, instead, was focused on keeping pornography out of school books.
The governor’s explanation, however, ignored the reality that he made a very public push for a law that banned critical race theory from being taught in public schools, and opened districts to potential lawsuits. Various interpretations of that law have made some school officials very wary of any instructional material that discusses racism.
Consequently, books about Aaron and Clemente potentially run afoul of Florida statutes.
“Whitewashing history doesn’t do children any good, it doesn’t do society any good,” said Jonah Winter, the author of the Clemente book. “Duval County has made an equivalency between mentioning racism in a book and pornography. That’s obscene. Decent human beings can agree that pornography is inappropriate for children. But mentioning racism? Are you going to stop mentioning George Washington? He fought in wars. Should children not learn about George Washington because of the violence of wars?
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“Parents and politicos who say they want to protect children from this are entirely disingenuous. They’re trying to score political points by using children and children’s books … They’re offended by the idea that we talk about racism at all because, ‘Hey, I’m not racist.’ So, I guess racism doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a thing of the past, let’s move on, nothing to look at here, folks.”
I did not want to make this a column about politics, although I imagine it will be viewed that way.
My intent was to write about baseball, children and books. About struggles and aspirations. About hardship and triumph.
A lifetime ago at Blanton Elementary, I would check out a book about Yankees star Lou Gehrig again and again. I don’t remember the title or author, or many details at all. I just remember that Gehrig came from a family of German immigrants, and he fell in love with baseball as a youngster. His parents didn’t have much money and had no concept of baseball, but they bought him a right-handed catcher’s mitt one Christmas.
Gehrig, of course, was left-handed.
Aside from the O. Henry quality of the story, I was struck by the sacrifices families make and the devotion Gehrig showed his parents throughout his life. I thought about that book Thursday morning while sitting in a child-sized chair in Safety Harbor Public Library while reading “Henry Aaron’s Dream” and imagining a 7-year-old learning what it was like to navigate through a segregated sport and society in 1950s America.
“While there was horrible stuff going on at the time I think, ultimately, it’s a very hopeful, optimistic story,” said Matt Tavares, author of the Aaron book. “This is a kid who started life not being able to play on the baseball fields in his hometown (in Mobile, Ala.). For a lot of kids, this was the first time they’ve learned about segregation. I’ve had kids say, ‘What? That’s crazy. That’s not fair.’
“And, yeah, it was crazy. But it introduces that topic in a way that kids can understand. And I think most kids do understand that because they’re very aware of things that are fair and unfair.”
For all its wonder, the world can sometimes be a dark and confusing place. As such, I think we can all agree on the importance of empathy and education. Of recognizing the need to be cognizant of age-appropriate topics and conversations.
If nothing else, the events of the past week have reinforced that idea.
So, kids, please teach your parents well.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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