Be Very Afraid?

I was 13 years old when JFK was assassinated.  Of course I was upset and sad and tearful and, like everyone else, glued to the TV where Walter Cronkite was also upset and sad and tearful.  It wasn’t because I had strong feelings for Kennedy—I would have been equally shocked if it happened to Eisenhower or Nixon.  What upset me most was that it happened in my town–like, ten miles away.  I knew the world was going to hate Dallas now.  When my little sister came home from school, our dad was waiting in the driveway for her.  “Yeah, I already know,” she said, “that was all anybody could talk about.”

She was bummed because November 22 happens to be her birthday, and the president’s bloody death would be the main topic of conversation at her party.  Which it was among the grownups, but at least she got presents and fun time with her cousins.

Here’s the thing, though—I heard the grownups talking among themselves, but none of them sat me down to explain or try to make me feel better.  The fact was, after a crying spell, I didn’t feel that bad;  certainly not devastated.  I was thirteen.  My sister was eight.  We were too young to process the historic significance or put the event in context.  My friend Dorinda Nicholson was six years old when a squadron of Japanese plans few over her house and bombed the row of US Navy battleships moored in Pearl Harbor.  Chaos, confusion, screams, and panic ensued, but after her family had taken refuge in the sugar cane field nearby, Dorinda and her friends had a great time playing hide-and-seek among the stalks.  No one rounded up the kids to explain what happened and offer counseling.  First, because nobody knew exactly what was happening, and second because the kids couldn’t have understood anyway.

So, I hear that parents on Facebook and Twitter and TV have reported anguished conversations with their kids about the near future since the election of a raving bigot and possible lunatic: apparently the kids are afraid that their Muslim friends are headed for concentration camp and their Latino friends will soon be rounded up and sent over the border and their gay friends . . . well, who knows?  We must all be kind to each other, that’s the key, and take it upon ourselves to step in wherever oppression and hate rear their ugly heads.  Now, that’s good counsel for any day, post any election.  I’m just wondering why the kids are so traumatized to begin with—or if they really are.

Back in the late 70’s, Barbara Feinberg taught at a daycare center in Upper Manhattan.  Usually she enjoyed just hanging out with the kids and telling them stories, but sometimes she was smitten with social consciousness.  In her memoir, Welcome to Lizard Motel, she recalls one of these moments

marching in one morning with the New York Times under my arm as if I had no time to waste, calling the elderly five-year-olds (who suddenly seemed sleepy) around in a circle.  “I am going to teach you about what’s happening in the world,” I said briskly. . . . “Does anyone know what a hostage is?”

She proceeded to inform these tots about the crisis in Iran.  While using a red crayon and a calendar to number the days that Americans had been imprisoned in the embassy in Tehran, she nattered on about “kidnapping and loss and powerlessness and the evil of strangers and the dangerousness of the world.” Meanwhile, as the other adults in the room nodded, possibly in encouragement, the children’s little faces went from incomprehension to thumb-sucking anxiety.

And it was only when a child began to cry, and then another asked politely, “Who’s going to steal us today?” and other children grew fidgety with anxiety and began bulleting around the room, that I was shaken out of my stupid, adolescent, postmodern idea of children, still holding the crayon in mid-air.  The adults shrank back into their own skins, and the children looked very, very small, and I finally shut up.

Looking back at my own childhood, I feel extremely lucky.  My parents didn’t consider me a miniature version of them, and I don’t know that any of my friends’ parents did either.  The grownups had their world, and we had ours, with mutual visiting privileges.  We picked up on their conversation and had a general idea of their political opinions, for better or worse, but they did not take it upon themselves to haul us to rallies and thrust placards in our hands that we couldn’t even read.

Moooom . . . can we go home now?

A few weeks ago some children’s book people took it upon themselves to reassure the kids as well as put a little steel in their spines regarding the election results.  It started with the hashtag #kidlitsafetypins and proceeded with well-known illustrators (such as Mo Willem, Marla Frazee, Raina Telegemeir) contributing drawings of their book characters sporting safety pins (symbol of a “safe person” who won’t look down on you for your color, gender, or sexual preference). Within a few days, the hashtag was changed to #hugsfromkidlit, so it wouldn’t be assumed that any adult wearing a safety pin was therefore “safe.”

Well, this is fine: we all need hugs from time to time.  But I think there’s a whole lotta projection goin’ on, as children are burdened with the fears of their significant grownups—fears which, in some cases, aren’t even rational.  Simply put, a president is limited in what he can do.  Except in cases of emergency, such as an actual shooting war or a nation-wide disaster, there can be no mass deportations or internments without due proc.  That’s the way our system is set up: checks and balances, all that.  And this president (elect) gives every indication of being something less than rock-ribbed in his intentions.

When the bombs start falling, or the police come to seize the immigrant boy next door, that might be time to talk it over with the kids.  Children are great adaptors on the fly, but not great abstract thinkers.  They tend to see things in concrete terms, and grim projections weigh more heavily on them than on adults.  Grownups are accustomed to hyperbole; kids generally haven’t acquired that knack yet, and they tend to believe what authority figures tell them.  So lighten up: chances are, it won’t be that bad, and even if it is, we’ve survived worse.

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