9/11/01 was a Tuesday. That year, I met with my 5th grade class of gifted students every Tuesday. We had just begun reading the The Giver, by Lois Lowry, when another teacher beckoned me to the door and whispered to me about a plane that had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Even then, as sadness overwhelmed me, I had no inclination of the far-reaching consequences of that day’s events.
At the beginning of The Giver, the fictional community is surprised by the sound of an unexpected plane flying overhead. The inhabitants, unused to surprises, are fearful – until they are assured by a disembodied voice over the village loudspeakers that the matter has been dealt with and, “Needless to say, the pilot has been released.”
Readers do not find out until later that “released” is a euphemism for extermination.
As I walked our dog through our neighborhood the evening of 9/11, the eerie silence of the skies overhead in my own community near the airport chilled me to the bone. Many people had been “released” that day in a way most of us could never have imagined. Everyone I knew felt bereft, confused, and deeply frightened. I thought about the dystopian world of The Giver, where everything was safe but there was no freedom or emotion.
“This is how it begins,” I thought. Fear.
When I ask my students how such a community as the one in The Giver, where people cannot even choose their own spouses, could ever come to be acceptable, they are often surprised by this question. Because this is a fictional story, a fictional world. It came to be because an author imagined it, and for no other reason. It is incomprehensible to them that anyone could accept such an existence without rebellion in the real world.
We have a lot of discussions about freedom and safety and the barely perceptible line that separates the two. I explain to my students some of the events of World War II – how hate and fear caused so much suffering around the world. Those who haven’t heard of concentration camps are stunned – and many of the students are even more surprised to hear that we had Japanese internment camps in our own country. In hindsight, it seems so unbelievable that the United States, defender of human rights, could also be guilty of stripping away those rights.
In Lois Lowry’s Newbery award speech for The Giver, she describes one of the many events that contributed to her story. She was with her daughter, and had just heard a news story about a mass killing, and asks her to be quiet so she can hear the details.
“Then I relax. I say to her, in a relieved voice, ‘It’s all right. It was in Oklahoma.’ ( Or perhaps it was Alabama. Or Indiana.) She stares at me in amazement that I have said such a hideous thing. How comfortable I made myself feel for a moment, by reducing my own realm of caring to my own familiar neighborhood. How safe I deluded myself into feeling.”
I have not felt safe since 9/11. It is not the terrorists who make my stomach knot. It has been the slow erosion of freedom that has become our new normal as we desperately attempt to avoid ever experiencing that horror again. Every year, as I read The Giver with a new class of 5th graders, I consider how much closer we are to becoming the willing inhabitants of a community like the one in The Giver – safe from terrorists and natural disasters, safe from starvation, and safe from uncomfortable emotions.
No, the people who live in that community have no need to fear any of those things. Their only threat is the one they don’t see – the people who lead them. Those leaders – who protect them so rigorously from the menaces that lurk within a free society – will not hesitate to eliminate within their community anyone who might disturb this environment of safe predictability. By ruthlessly removing anyone weak or different, they are able to maintain equilibrium.
In The Giver, the protagonist, Jonas, has to make the decision to leave the community in order to save it. His best friend must remain behind to help the community to help it deal with the consequences of Jonas leaving. But Jonas wants his friend to leave with him, and blurts out that he shouldn’t care about the community. He immediately regrets his outburst.
“Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”
And so, in this post I want to say that I care. I care deeply about all humans and their rights, not just the ones who look like me or think like me or live near me. There are evil people in this world who I fear, but I refuse to believe we must combat them by hurting millions of innocent people ourselves. I care about the refugees fleeing desperate situations, the men and women whose live are in danger because they allied with our government in foreign countries, and the people who come here for an education so they can return to their countries and make them a better place. It is wrong and cowardly of our country to turn them away because of fear. I refuse to remain silent about policies based on prejudice and bigotry.
I am an educator. In my classroom, it is my duty to remain neutral about politics. But I refuse to be neutral about human rights. I spend much of the time teaching my students about our global community and the importance of embracing different cultures, and I decline to be a hypocrite.
If you believe that policies that discriminate and punish people of certain races or religious beliefs will keep our country safer, you are wrong. Instead, we will lose allies and generate more hatred – endangering us even further.
“I liked the feeling of love,” Jonas confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. “I wish we still had that,” he whispered. “Of course,” he added quickly, “I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”
Personally, I think it’s far more dangerous to live without it.
“We learned about a man who got killed today,” a kindergarten boy solemnly informed me Friday afternoon. We were waiting in the cafeteria to board buses at dismissal time. The day before, he had been all excited about his train book he had checked out from the library. But now things had gotten serious.
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Martin Luther King,” the little girl next to him nodded.
“Oh,” I said, somewhat relieved. I don’t know why that made it better – that it was a man who was killed years ago instead of hours ago. Time shouldn’t make it less disturbing, should it?
“No one liked what he said, his speeches,” the boy went on, “so the police killed him.”
“Wait a second!” I said, as gently as I could, “The police did not kill him. A bad man did. And lots of people did like his speeches.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He didn’t seem very concerned with the details. But he patted me on the arm because he could see that I did care.
By then it was time to board the bus, so the conversation was over.
The day before, I had been talking about courage with my 5th graders. They had to rank 5 pictures from lowest to highest on how much courage they felt was being demonstrated in each image. There was disagreement about the ranking of a picture that showed a Selma protest march. Before ranking, the students had set some criteria for courage, one of which was that the person chose to perform that action not knowing if the outcome would be harmful to him or her.
“I ranked it high because they were marching for their civil rights,” one student said.
“But they didn’t have a choice!” one student exclaimed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They weren’t getting treated right, so they had to march. It wasn’t their choice, so it’s not courage!”
I tried to wrap my mind around this interesting logic and a few of us did our best to explain the situation – which the student admitted he didn’t know very much about.
“Well, and plus, they didn’t have to worry about being harmed because we have the right to protest, don’t we?” he asked.
Wow, I thought. This had obviously not been covered in his history class.
Ironically, our entire conversation had been brought about because we just finished reading The Giver, a book about a dystopian society where only one person holds all of the memories of the past – the good and the bad. We had talked about the importance of keeping even horrible memories because we learn from them. Yet here we were struggling to understand the importance of historical moments that are already starting to fade as newer generations tell the story with less and less detail.
I am worried. Every time I read The Giver with a class, I try to get across the message that, even though it’s fictional, it is not entirely unrealistic. People are willing to give up many freedoms to ensure safety – especially if they have no experience in having their rights taken away. I don’t want to be an alarmist, and I don’t want to send my students to bed with nightmares about atrocities from the past (or even the present). But I worry that we assume that rights that have been won can never be lost, and underestimate the incredible courage and strength it takes to capture and retain our tenuous freedom.
I’m sorry that I was relieved when I found out my student was talking about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. We should all be just as angry and horrified today as those who mourned when it happened. We need to feel the pain of his death so acutely that we will not allow those circumstances to ever develop again. I feel, especially in our country this week, that we are at an important crossroad and we desperately need the wisdom of the people who understand what it really means to live in, “The Land of the Free.”
First, I want to go back to a suggestion in my Cornucopia post, which was, “What are you Thankful For? Ask it Better.” I’ve been using different prompts from this article with each grade level. For example, my 5th graders brainstormed what they are thankful for that they cannot see. My 2nd graders brainstormed what teachers might be thankful for, as you can see below. I really like this twist on giving thanks.
I posted last year about the Week of Inspirational Math resources provided on YouCubed.org. I used these with my 3rd grade class (there are versions for K-12), and the students really enjoyed this approach to math. The set of activities and videos promotes a growth mindset in math, and I felt that it really set a great tone for the rest of the school year as we worked on challenges.
I’m happy to see that professor JoAnn Boaler and the team at YouCubed.org have produced Week of Inspirational Math 2, which looks just as promising as the WIM1. The videos provided with this new WIM are a bit more fun, while still remaining faithful to the theory that anyone can be a math person.
Having personally experienced my own metamorphosis from “not a math person” to someone who excelled in math in high school, I am a firm believer that too many of us get caught in the myths and stereotypes that make us believe only a pre-determined group of people can understand math. I have witnessed in my own classroom students who have given up on the subject and, with effort on both our parts, turned this fixed mindset around to become students who enjoy math.
If you have the opportunity to start your year with one or two weeks of Inspirational Math, I think you will find it is an excellent use of time that will pay off for the remainder of your school year.
My latest Fusion blog post describes a student who was ahead of her class and ahead of her time when it came to developing 21st century skills – Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Though there were a few teachers in the series who weren’t very appreciative of Hermione’s many admirable qualities (notably Severus Snape, Dolores Umbridge, and Sybil Trelawney), I imagine a majority of non-fictional teachers would be quite charmed to have Hermione in their class! Read this post to learn more about how to encourage your own Hermiones, Rons, Harrys, and other students to communicate, collaborate, create, and think critically.