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Graphic Novels: Threat or Menace?

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Fifty three years after Dr. Fredric Wertham argued in "Seduction of the Innocent" that comic books were corrupting the morals of our youth, a public schoolteacher has been forced to resign -- and faced the threat of criminal prosecution -- for giving a student a graphic novel as a reading assignment.

And not in some Bible Belt backwater either, but rather in a prosperous Connecticut shoreline community whose residents include more than a few faculty members from nearby Yale University.

This is how the story was initially reported on September 20 in the local daily, the New Haven Register:

GUILFORD -- The parents of a freshman student whose teacher resigned after he gave her a sexually explicit illustrated book said Wednesday their daughter has been the target of harassment from fellow students, and they want the school district to do more to clarify the issue with other parents.

The girl's father, who asked that his family remain anonymous because it has already been the target of criticism, described the graphic novel that English teacher Nate Fisher gave the student as "borderline pornography."

The father also noted, later in the story:

"I personally don't ever want him teaching again," he said. "There is nothing that he could say that would account for this. ... That poor judgment is something you can't take back."

So at this point you're thinking, this must be some kind of sleazy predator of a teacher, right? Good thing they got that scumbag out of there, right?

Well, not exactly.

The book, one of a series of comic book novels by Daniel Clowes, is called "Eightball #22."

* * *

The following week, my friend Chris Arnott at the alternative weekly New Haven Advocate wrote a story on the controversy, noting:

Register reporter Rachael Scarborough King shorthanded Clowes' complexities by reporting that the comic "includes references to rape, various sex acts and murder, as well as images of a naked woman, and a peeping tom watching a woman in the shower." Shocking stuff -- though the sex and bloodshed aren't in fact depicted, just talked about, and the nudity is part of a poignant and decidedly non-titillating scene in which a sensitive young woman is afraid her lover will leave her because of an unsightly birthmark. In any case, graphic acts of sex, murder and voyeurism can be found in countless classic works of literature, by such acclaimed writers as Charles Bukowski, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Gore Vidal, Nick Hornby, Theodore Dreiser, Sam Shepard, Alice Walker, Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kerouac, D.H. Lawrence, John Cheever, Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath.

All those writers, as it happens, appear on the official list of 2007 Summer Reading suggestions presented to students by the Guilford High School English department. So do disgraced sex-and-drugs-addled memoirist Augusten Burroughs and bestselling erotic mystery novelist Janet Evanovich, most of whose books have a hot sex scene within the first few pages. It's an enlightened, engrossing, wide-ranging list that might actually attract more young people to read.

Chris also noted:

That cause wasn't helped by the New Haven Register's Sept. 21 "Soundoff" readers poll question, "Are comic book novels too graphic for children?" Some readers responded with such uninformed comments as "Guilford schools and comic books -- it figures," and "Absolutely, period. It is frightening that this event could occur in our educational system."

* * *

On October 17, the Register followed up with "good news": the teacher whose career has most likely been destroyed by a perfect storm of overzealous parents and cowardly school administrators will not be criminally prosecuted.

Oh, happy day!

Guilford Police Deputy Chief Jeffrey Hutchinson said the department received a complaint about Fisher Sept. 4 and has now closed its investigation.

"Basically, we were informed, we investigated it and had contact with the state's attorney's office, and they said there's nothing they're going to prosecute, so we closed the case," Hutchinson said. "There's no criminal charges pending; there's none anticipated."

Hutchinson said he cannot release details of the investigation because it included "uncorroborated allegations."

* * *

Fisher said he gave the student the graphic novel, which features a number of intersecting stories told in comic book form, because she had not done a summer reading assignment. It was part of a collection of his own books that he had in the classroom. He read the book in a graphic novels course when he was a student at the University of Connecticut and had not reviewed it for some time, he said.

"I was literally looking for ... something that she could read over the weekend, something quick, because all the kids had a test on Tuesday, the weekend after, and I didn't want her to start the year behind in her school work," he said. "In my mind, any book that you give to a student that's going to create a reaction like this in the student's family is an inappropriate book, so you'll never hear me say this was an appropriate thing to do. I just think the way it was handled wasn't right, and it was bad for everybody."

After the student's parents brought their concerns to the school administration, Fisher was placed on leave and resigned about two weeks later. He said he was surprised at the school district's reaction to the situation.

"The administration made it clear to me that they didn't want me back, and at that point, I wanted to do what was in the best interest of my career, as well as the town of Guilford, the students and parents and everybody," he said. "I never thought that I would be pulled out of my job without any due process to be able to defend myself or give my version of the events of what happened. I felt like they really didn't take into account anything about my career that had happened before."

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. In September, he sent an e-mail to high school parents in which he said the graphic novel "rose to a level of unacceptability that is far beyond that of materials normally questioned in educational circles."

This, remember, from a school district whose official reading list includes Bukowski, Ginsberg and Augusten Burroughs. But wait, there's more!

The mother of the girl who received the comic book has asked to remain anonymous because the family had been criticized after Fisher's resignation. She is satisfied with the outcome and thinks the school district "did a great job."

Initially, she said, she was concerned about the teacher's intentions because he gave the graphic novel to only her daughter. But she added that she now believes he made a mistake.

"It is what it is, and we really hope that his intentions were the best, and if that's the case, then we hope that he's able to go on and find another job and continue with his life," she said.

Gosh, isn't that just so very gracious of her? After raging through the guy's life like a California wildfire, she allows as how it would be okay with her if he eventually somehow manages to find something salvagable as he picks through the wreckage she's left behind.

* * *

Finally, yesterday, almost a month after their initial sensationalistic coverage of this shameful episode, the New Haven Register featured an editorial which gently chided the Guilford school district -- which, while commendable, probably would have mattered a lot more oh, say, a month ago, when the Register's front page was portraying the teacher as a possible pedophile.

Guilford High School's teachers and students should have expected better from school system administrators.

Instead, the school's out-of-proportion reaction to a teacher's well-intentioned makeup assignment for a student turned an internal academic issue into a public controversy, complete with a criminal investigation.

At least the teacher, Nate Fisher, will not face criminal charges for assigning a student a graphic novel to read over a weekend to make up for her failure to complete a summer reading assignment.

* * *
Fisher may have shown questionable judgment in assigning the graphic novel. Given the parents' reaction, Fisher says the assignment was inappropriate.

Inappropriate, perhaps; but, not worthy of a criminal investigation nor ending a promising young teacher's career.

Falls somewhat short of the obvious: the teacher should be hired back, with an abject public apology and full back pay.

Originally posted at This Modern World.