Recently I participated in the National Read Across America Day at our local elementary school. This event is held every year on March 2, the birthday of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.
Most Americans are familiar with the stories of the redoubtable Seuss, author of dozens of children's books including "The Cat in the Hat" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."
American educators use Seuss' birthday to celebrate this beloved writer by asking community members to read his stories to the children in their care. I was delighted to do this and had a wonderful time reading my favorite Seuss story, "The Sneetches," to three primary school classes.
"The Sneetches" tells of the funny creatures with bulbous tummies, some of whom are born with stars on their bellies and some of whom are not. In the story, the Sneetches with the stars think they are better than those who have no star. Seuss' tale teaches that star or no star, the beings are essentially equal; the stars are just superfluous decorations and not indicative of superiority, or the lack thereof. The Sneetches finally learn this lesson and, in the end, harmony prevails.
A bit of research about Geisel adds further insight to his story's message. The man we've come to know as Dr. Seuss was a passionate proponent of racial equality all his life, as well as an advocate for preservation of the environment. His stories also express his abhorrence of materialism and the arms race. His views were, of course, cloaked in the guise of delightfully rhyming lines so his child readers would remember them and the morals embedded within them.
The day after I agreed to participate in National Read Across America Day, I came upon a column in The News titled "The South Lost. Period." written by Miami Herald journalist Leonard Pitts. In his column, Pitts takes Mississippi to task over its effort to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest by featuring him on that state's vanity license plates. Although an adept military leader, he earned his fortune as a slave trader and was responsible for atrocities against African-American Union troops at the Battle of Fort Pillow during the Civil War. After the war, he was an early and ardent member of the racist and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan. Pitts expressed deep concern that Mississippi would even consider paying homage to such a person.
I began mentally comparing the story of the Sneetches with those modern-day Mississippians who think Forrest is worthy of esteem. Seuss' Sneetches finally realized that stars on the bellies -- read color of skin or any number of perceived differences we humans use to establish superior/inferior status -- gave no one cause to discriminate. Forrest's life was dedicated to promoting just the opposite, along with the perpetration of extreme violence both within a war situation and outside one.
What can be garnered from this comparison? Maybe that Mississippians would do far better relegating Forrest to the history books and putting a couple of Sneetches on their license plates. I even have a design for them: one Sneetch would have a star on his tummy and one would not. They would stand side by side shaking hands. Then everyone who saw them could ponder not just a troubled past, but a better future as represented by these chubby Seussian characters, who finally got smart and "decided that Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches."
Judith Geer, a retired educator from Holland, was delighted to read her favorite Dr. Seuss story to local schoolchildren.