Sunday, March 20, 2011

"The Whole Earth Started To Break"

We were telling stories a few days ago:

"Crush. And then and skeleton crushed a skeleton, then a skeleton crushed a skeleton, then a skeleton crushed a skeleton, then a skeleton crushed a skeleton . . ."

A lot of kids start their stories this way. I think of it as a kind of "thinking" stammer that buys time while they collect and organize the words to express what they have inside. Often what comes next has nothing to do with the first few sentences. There was a brief pause after the fifth repetition, then like a cold car's engine finally turning over, he really began:

"And then Teacher Tom's school fell on them. And then fell on everything inside and it started to rumble and then it started to shake and the whole earth started to break. Well, a ceiling knocked down a door. A light bulb got broken. And then an old fashioned steam power plant fell down."

Of course, I immediately recognized that we were talking about Japan's recent 9.0 earthquake. It's the only thing I've heard so far from any of the kids. I've been prepared, waiting for it to be brought up, having read through a collection of articles on talking to, and listening to, young children about these kinds of horrible catastrophes. I felt ready, calm even, experienced (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, etc.). As he told his story another part of my mind was working on how our circle time was going to go later in the day, especially after we read this story and the children were reminded of the horrible things they'd glimpsed on TV or heard on the radio.

He finished his story, however, with a mythological twist reminiscent of the Japanese monster movie craze that followed on the heels of the atom bomb tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

"And then something ate up a house. And then the house ate up a black spooky house that had a ghost in it. Well, and then the house crushed a skeleton. And then another Teacher Tom came in and broke and then 2 dinosaurs came in and broke down the house and doubted. They ate up Teacher Tom's school."

While he'd been earnest in telling the first part of the story, this second part made him smile, he was having fun with it. Perhaps, in his way, taking control of it through a clearly fictional narrative, the way mythology has always been used by humans dealing with the great questions. When we read the story in front of the class, it didn't lead to further discussion, probably because it ended in a way the children found as a comical exaggeration, distracting them from their fears. I'm still waiting for it to come up as a serious subject, but it's going to have to come from the children.


When our daughter Josephine was 6-years-old my family spent a month in New York City. At one point Josephine and I found ourselves in the neighborhood of “Ground Zero” and decided to have a look.  As we walked, she asked her usual set of questions about what happened and why.  I’d become pretty good at answering, having settled on a sterile recounting of the facts, explaining it as a manifestation of hate, and concluding with a reminder that love is the answer.  This time, however, we got into the (what I thought) innocuous subject of when it had happened.

“You mean it happened since I’ve been alive?” she asked, genuinely astonished.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I explained that she had been too little, just 3-years-old.

She scolded me, angrily, “I want to know these things!  I want you to tell me the truth about these things!”

When we got to the giant hole in the ground, she curled her fingers around the cyclone fence and bawled.  As we later licked ice cream cones she wondered if a plane passing overhead was about to crash into one of the other tall buildings surrounding us.  I had to get us out of there.

We walked a few blocks and found ourselves outside the cemetery that surrounds the Trinity Church.  Children were climbing on the tombstones and Josephine wanted to take a closer look.  Before long she was calculating the dates on the markers, saying, “He was only 3-years-old when he died!”  “She was your age, Papa!”  I couldn’t tempt her away from her grim exploration for almost an hour.  Finally we found ourselves near an entrance to the church and although I’ve never been one for organized religion it felt like an appropriate refuge.

Inside someone practiced the organ and we sat in a pew to listen.

Josephine then whispered, “Look at that!”

It was a huge statue of Jesus bleeding on the cross.

We escaped to the side rooms where we found sarcophagi in the walls.

There was no escaping the truth that day.  She was handling it better than me.

We can’t keep the truth from our children: it would be a crime to try.  Our first responsibility, it seems to me, is to be aware of the emotions, both ours and theirs, name them (“I’m disappointed,” “You seem angry,” “I think we’re both sad.”), accept them, and just feel them.

Then, to steal crass terminology from politics, the next step is “spin-doctoring." As parents of young children we may not fully control the channels of communication with the outside world, but we are their main source of interpretation. Whatever the subject matter, we owe our children our honest opinions, emotions, questions and understandings.  It’s perfectly normal that my own deep sadness or anger or despair would be shared by my child.  But it's my job to make sure it doesn't end there. I need to help her, as I help myself, work through those feelings and find a way to move forward in hope and joy: I don’t want live any other way.

One of the most concrete ways, I think, to find that hope, as Mister Rogers says, is to "look for the helpers."

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me. “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Fortunately, for most of us the world is not so full of daily disaster. Your child is unlikely to experience much of it except on TV, and frankly I don’t think that’s such a bad place to get some initial exposure as long as you’re there with them. It doesn’t have to be television: passing the scene of a traffic accident or witnessing the business end of a fire department call to a neighbor’s house would serve just as well. Viewing disaster at a distance gives parents an opportunity to calmly lay down a little philosophical groundwork to prepare for when tragedy strikes closer to home.

Brilliantly, Mister Roger’s mom came up with looking for the helpers. It was a simple observation that comforted him throughout his life.

When children from the Woodland Park community experience frightening events such as accidents, emergency illnesses, or a death in the family, parents usually prepare me with a little back story and an assessment of how their child is handling it. More often than not, the child is clearly eager to get back to the normalcy of school, but I always take a quiet moment during the day to broach the subject with the child. Sometimes they let me know, in their own ways, that they’re not ready to talk about it. But more often than not they do talk, and in what they say I always hear their parents’ voices putting things in perspective.

It might not always seem like it, but they are listening.

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Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Teacher Tom,
As usual your thoughts and suggestions are very appropriate.

I like the idea of helping children "Look for the helpers" - a human and reassuring thought.Sometimes that may be the only redeeming thing in a horrific situation.

Thanks for this,

Stacey said...

Tom, I also believe firmly in telling children the truth without providing details they don't need to hear. You can usually follow their lead and know about how much truth to explain.

I had not heard of the 'look for the helpers' idea, but that is a wonderful way to look at it. There are always helpers and when you bring them to light, children can see how others take a horrible situation and make it something positive out of it. Things don't seem so dire if you can focus on the those positive lights shining in the darkness.

It also shows the kids that they can make a difference. We are raising the leaders of the future and won't it be something to know that our actions helped to create the empathic adults of the future.

There will always be disasters, deaths, sickness, and other life-altering events. We teach the kids how to deal with those emotions that present themselves in these situations.

Thanks for another amazing post!

Anna G said...

These are wonderful stories, and just what we need in the face of all the bad news on the news...thanks for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

I live in NYC, and the helpers were all around the WTC in the weeks and months that followed. I think it was really good for our city's children to see that so many people cared enough about us to spend their time helping out.

And that quote is yet another reason why Mr. Rogers will always be one of my top heroes.

Anonymous said...

I was in New Orleans for Katrina and the aftermath. We were working feverishly in my parish (we don't have counties, we have parishes) to get our school opened before many of us were even able to get to our homes, or to where our homes were. There were lots of helpers then and still there are lots of helpers. My daughter and I were on the look out for helpers daily, and enjoyed welcoming and helping them. Thank goodness for the helpers!