ATHENS, Tenn. -- Growing up in rural eastern Tennessee, James Cockrum hadn't given much thought to the possibility that one day he might find himself speaking about his Jewish heritage in front of a packed school board meeting.
But four days after news broke that the McMinn County school board unanimously voted to remove a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust from the district's curriculum, Cockrum celebrated the birth of his daughter. That life-changing moment left the 25-year-old wrestling with the realities of the community he grew up in.
“My father was of Jewish descent; I'm of Jewish descent. There is nothing more personal to anybody than our heritage,” Cockrum said. “This is very disturbing.”
Cockrum was one of a handful of people who spoke at the meeting to try to persuade the McMinn County School Board to reconsider its decision that sparked international attention, renewing concerns about book bans and the growing threat of antisemitism. After the board quietly removed “Maus" last month, February's meeting was packed with concerned parents, teachers and students who spilled into an overflow room to see how the board would respond to the criticism.
Instead, the board demurred to a lengthy statement issued weeks earlier justifying its determination that “Maus” — a graphic novel in which Jews are portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats in the retelling of the horrific Holocaust experience of the author's parents — was inappropriate for children because of curse words and a depiction of a nude corpse, which was drawn as a cartoon mouse.
Only one board member, Mike Cochran, broached the subject Thursday. Cochran recounted a conversation with a Jewish rabbi who had suggested to him that a Holocaust survivor could talk to students as a possible replacement for the removed book.
“I want people to understand that this had nothing to do with the Holocaust on why we took it out,” he said.
On Jan. 10, McMinn school board members called a special meeting to discuss “Maus," only a day before their district's eighth graders were scheduled to begin reading the book. The time crunch gave the discussion a sense of urgency. No recordings of the meeting have been released, but 20 pages of meeting minutes detail a back and forth between board members and school administrators, who defended the text as a vital lesson that brought home the horror of an important moment in history.
The minutes show that none of the board members had read “Maus” and at least one member noted that the typical process for handling complaints over curriculum had been bypassed. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to remove the book and directed teachers to find a suitable replacement.
The decision largely went unnoticed until an advocacy group called the Tennessee Holler broadcast the news. The book has since moved to the center of a gro...