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February 7 2018

New York School Officials Miss Chance to Teach About Real Inclusion

by Julie Gunlock

Fox News is reporting that a school in Ithaca, New York just cancelled a high school production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because of student protests associated with the lead role of Esmeralda being given to a white, female student.

According to the report, the drama all started when one black student quit the production after objecting to the casting of the white student. Subsequently, a group of student activists wrote a letter to school administrators expressing their concerns.

Without a hint of irony, the letter actually states that their main objection to the casting is that it runs counter to Victor Hugo’s novel’s main message—which they say is one of “inclusion.” Poor Victor Hugo. He must resemble a boney fidget spinner in his grave.

The letter reveals an important detail about the student protestors: they clearly haven’t read Victor Hugo’s classic novel and if they did, they don’t understand it. First of all, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” covered, not one, but many themes—social upheaval, love, jealousy, grace in suffering, fate and free will and, most obviously, how our physical appearance doesn’t always match who we are inside.

While you could argue that Hugo tackled the very modern concept of “inclusion,” the issue of Quasimodo’s and Esmeralda’s exclusion from society went far beyond the first world problems of today. Quasimodo was truly repulsive in his deformity. Hugo even writes that Quasimodo’s own mother abandoned him because she couldn’t bear to look at him or love him.

But Quasimodo was also born at a time where superstitions were the norm and where people often blamed birth defects and disfigurement on witchcraft or other demonic forces. Esmeralda’s beauty and raw sexuality was also thought to be the work of the devil. Yet, behind Quasimodo’s deformed face and body, there was very kind, gentle and compassionate soul. And Quasimodo was able to see beyond Esmeralda’s beauty, finding that she too was kind and treated all people equally—even a deformed bell ringer like Quasimodo.

While it’s laughable to try to equate Hugo’s masterful depiction of true social isolation and exclusion in Revolutionary France to the “problems” faced by the well fed and coddled Ithaca high school students and their drama club protest, Hugo’s message about the pitfalls of judging people by their outward appearance is still germane.  

Consider the words written by these students in the letter to school administrators, where they actually praise the young actress who was chosen to play Esmeralda (bracketted section mine).

Before we speak further [about how we're a bunch of racists], we want to stress that the talented young woman who was cast in this role is a stellar actor, singer, and dancer. She has worked hard to hone her craft and the IHS stage, or any stage, would be lucky to have her.

Then, seemingly unaware to what they’ve just written above, they go on, writing:

Our concern is not with her, but with the fact that in terms of demographics, she is the wrong choice for this role.

And then they let their racist flag fly, writing:

 The young woman who was cast in this role has hazel eyes, blonde hair, and is the epitome of whiteness

If these knuckleheaded drama students were to apply the same…hmmm, what is this…Logic? Okay, let’s go with the word logic. If they were to apply this “logic” to Esmeralda or Quasimodo, it might sound like this:

Both Esmeralda and Quasimodo are fabulous people. Thoughtful, gentle souls who are compassionate, loving, faithful, loyal and unfailingly kind.  Yet, Quasimodo’s ugly and deformed and Esmeralda’s beautiful and totally sexy…so, we’d rather them stay locked up in the church with that creepy priest…mmmkay? Great.

Sadly, school administrators and teachers didn’t point this out to these kids. Instead, school officials rolled over—sending the kids a message that these silly sorts of stunts work and that being a racist jerk is super duper okay if you claim you’re a social justice warrior. And in breech of perhaps a teachers’ most basic role, they also failed to explain to these kids that they’ve mischaracterized Hugo’s novel and used it push an ideology with which Hugo would never have agreed. I guess that’s totes cool with the teachers if it keeps those crazy kids calm. 

Soon, these kids will head off to college and they’ll be armed with the knowledge that teachers hate controversy and student protests more than ignorance of history and literature. That’s modern public education in a sad little paragraph.

Perhaps this school should get back to doing what schools are meant to do—TEACH. They can start by teaching what Victor Hugo was trying to convey with his great novel and then perhaps they can move on to the works of Martin Luther King who famously wrote about dreaming, much like Victor Hugo did, of a day when men are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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