David Warwak looks like Eric Schlosser the author of Fast Food Nation. He sounds like Eric Schlosser. Unfortunately, instead of a best seller, Warwak's efforts to wake young people up to the politics of eating have earned him a pink slip at the Chicago area middle school where he has taught art for almost eight years.
This week District 3 school board members voted, 7-0 to dismiss Warwak from his position at Fox River Grove Middle School for "turning his classroom into a forum on veganism" and asking students to keep it a secret.
Problems started last spring when Warwak bought a quantity of yellow marshmallow Peeps, a candy shaped like a baby chick, and distributed them to the students and faculty telling them to, "take their 'animal friend' home and protect it," Warwak recounts in an interview.
Both students and faculty "bonded" with their Peep, honoring the custody they'd been given, bringing it back to school as told and--importantly--not biting its head off.
But then the Peeps were confiscated to become trophies on the wall, caged animals in the zoo, roadkill in a truck and finally lunch between two slices of bread.
Suddenly it wasn't funny anymore.
"People 'got' the part about protecting the Peep and not eating it even though it would taste good. They even had the Peeps 'talking' to them. But when the lesson enlarged to how we treat real, not make believe, animals they got angry. They didn't see it coming."
School administrators who had played along said they felt "hoodwinked" and ordered the Peep installations taken down.
Teaching in both Fox River Grove elementary and middle schools, Warwak has watched many of these kids grow up and noted a disturbing trend.
"Some boys were amusing themselves impaling frogs they found at the river with knives and watching them squirm in pain," he says. "They brought a video of a cat being decapitated to school and thought it was funny."
Warwak talked to school counselors who did nothing.
Realizing the kids' removal from animal pain was not different from his own as a fisherman before he turned vegan or anyone consuming meat and indifferent to its animal price, Warwak became an activist.
He asked the cafeteria manager to remove pro milk posters--45,000 public middle and high schools in the US and 60,000 public elementary schools display the government-sanctioned milk huckstering despite a Federal Trade Commission ruling against them this year-- and gave him a copy of John Robbins' "Food Revolution."
Then he bought copies of "Food Revolution" for all the students and told them to look up factory farming on the Internet.
Then he heard from the principal, Tim Mahaffy.
Seated next to his girlfriend, Karen, also vegan, at the home of a Chicago activist, Warwak said he does not regret his actions.
The purpose of art is to provide new ways of seeing things says Warwak who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago as a young child, and State of Illinois Education policies clearly mandate teaching humane education and "character development."
Locally the contretemps has drawn support from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who sent a letter to Principal Mahaffy stating, "Students in every school should have teachers like Mr. Warwak to tell them that the 'chicken nuggets' they consume in the cafeteria were once living, breathing animals who were crammed into filthy sheds and pumped full of drugs before having their throats slit while they're still conscious."
But postings on community blogs and newspaper web sites lean toward the shut-up-and-teach variety with the I-love-animals...next-to-the-mashed-potatoes! jokes that inevitably follow animal welfare articles.
Even the Chicago Tribune weighed in on the issue calling Warwak's stance--"that you can't teach kids to appreciate art till you get them to think about life"--"not a bad point" and allowing that "Those of us who haven't turned vegetarian aren't wholly ignorant of where our meat comes from."
But there was a but.
"[P]arents of middle-schoolers also know how hard it is to work all the necessary nutrients into the diet of a picky tweener...[if you [t]ake away the milk and the chicken nuggets and all the other things vegans object to."
Chicken nuggets provide nutrients? Sounds like the Tribune has drunk the food's industry's Kool-Aid.
Or eaten the Peeps.