A dear friend sent me this New York Time column by the sometimes controversial Judith Warner. In it, Warner muses about the cosmic change we all know came last Tuesday, and her young daughters' seeming inability to understand the magnitude of what has happened.
“Look,” we said, pointing to the headline “Racial Barrier Falls.” “This is huge.”
We labored to make them understand that their world — art that day, and orchestra, and Baked Potato Bar at lunch — had irrevocably changed.
But how can you understand change when you’ve only known one way of being?
They were happy because we were happy. They rose to the occasion in that bemused way children do when adults tell them what they should feel. They were glad to be rid of George W. Bush and to be saved – for now – from the specter of Sarah Palin.
Of course one of the reasons for this is that, for younger people, unless they're well-briefed, it is less of an earthquake. They know we believe that they are part of something wonderful, but they don't know as viscerally as we do the terribleness that came before. It was easier, 30 years ago, with my own children. They went to a pretty progressive elementary school where Martin Luther King Day was a cornerstone of the winter curriculum. In the first grade they learned about the kid across the street who wouldn't play with him, and of the pain that caused. They watched Eyes on the Prize more than once in class. When we settled on annual giving, their vote was for the United Negro College Fund. Their babysitter told them stories about not being able to go into Virginia smoke shops to buy a candy bar, about the scary cruelty that was her childhood. It came from someone they knew. It wasn't history, it was their friend's life.
But they're a generation or more older than Warner's girls and, growing up in Manhattan they knew more, and heard more, from people for whom it was more immediate. There are fewer of those people now, as Selma and Montgomery fade farther into history. It will take more work, more commitment by schools as well as parents, to help these small people understand what has happened. Work worth doing though, I think.
As I've thought about this, I've recalled that my parents never completely described to me the impact of the Depression on their lives. They were, I later learned, enormously affected but there really wasn't a way to explain it - at least for them. They had suffered too much. It drove me to study Depression history in college, when much of what I'd wondered about became clear. That was a sad landmark instead of a proud one, but it's also about troubled experiences difficult to communicate. A challenge either met or avoided.
I agree that one way to help younger people understand the wonder of what has happened is just as Warner described it. Let them be "happy because we're happy." Explain as best we can. Personally though, I'm not against a little indoctrination: the story of Dr. King's lost playmate, or Jackie Robinson or Fannie Lou Hamer or Rosa Parks (there's a kids' song "When Rosa Parks Sat Down, the Whole World Stood Up")or Charlayne Hunter-Gault. And the question I used so often: "How do you think you would feel if that happened to you?" From the known to the unknown, the familiar to the unfamiliar, just like any other lesson. Allow the natural compassion of a loving child to emerge, and their sense of justice and wonder will not be far behind.