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On Terror and Children

By Bruce Shaw — October 10, 2001 4 min read
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Bruce Shaw is the director of Shady Hill School, an independent, nonsectarian school of 500 students, pre-K through 8th grade, in Cambridge, Mass.

Children’s reactions to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have arrived as nightmarish eruptions, the thinking twisted like the metal of the World Trade Center by improbable and devastating images.

"Mommy," said one of our 4th graders one night at home, "do you think we should sleep in our clothes?" "Why would we do that?" "Because if any hijackers come to get us in the middle of the night, we'll be ready to get away."

Across America, the time after the attacks has been for quiet and family, an escape from horror. I have stayed close to home, using one weekend morning to straighten out a woodpile that had strayed from its spot between two trees, tumbling into a delirious mess. Mindless physical labor has seemed right.

The original woodpile had a system. Aged wood that had been split went to the left, while wood that still needed to dry was stacked on the right. Time and inattention had destroyed my organization, however, obscuring the boundary between the two.

While I moved the wood around, I couldn’t stop thinking about the hijackings and their appalling impact on our country as well as on the school I head. We have lost family members. Like others, I have been grappling to understand terrorism that targets the innocent, struggling to find how to explain the unexplainable to children.

The kindergarten teacher knew her children had heard stories and seen pictures. She gave opportunities for them to talk, but they wouldn't. Suddenly the drone of a transport plane filled the air. The boy nearest her—the impatient one, who had just asked if they could go out for recess—whispered in her ear: "Do you think that plane is going to crash on our classroom?"

With effort, my woodpile came back into order. I was forced to haul away wheelbarrows full of wood left so long to season it had rotted. How had I failed to notice wood disintegrated nearly to sawdust by termites? But the pile was straight, and I stepped back to admire my work. Small moments of triumph are short-lived; I knew my woodpile would crumble again if neglected.

Pay attention, provide order, show respect and tolerance, and relationships will flourish. Turn your back and they will show the ugly face of hatred.

Human relationships, both personal and political, need careful tending as well. Pay attention, provide order, show respect and tolerance, and they will flourish. Turn your back, become careless and neglectful, create a flawed system, and they will show the ugly face of hatred. Stacking the wood, I fretted about the terror that had seeped unnoticed beneath my skin while I cared for others. I learned about my own fears the night the thunderstorm awakened me. Groggy at 2 a.m., I was certain Boston was being bombed.

The woodpile finished, I stored the splitting wedges I had found again, worrying about what America has done to invite so much hatred, while I tried to figure out how I would reason with terrorism that has no face I can find. I prayed that we could just take what had broken down and stack it up again, neat and straight, the pieces in harmonious and proportional relationship to one another. I think about the students in my school every day, and where children are involved, I seek order.

At a neighboring school, the fire department arrived for the year's first fire drill. They had already agreed to hold off an extra 10 days so they wouldn't worry the children, but that time had run out. As the fire horns blared and bells rang, the school emptied onto the athletic field, the fire trucks parked nearby. The drill was over quickly, without incident, when a little boy tapped the principal's arm. "Do you think my Daddy is safe in his office? Can we call him now and tell him to come and get me?"

What we tell our children is less important than what we do. They will pay close attention to our every action and inaction. We will guide them not just in how we manage the particulars of this national crisis, but in the models we provide for confronting violence from without and dealing with anger from within. They will learn something about the balance between reaction based in law and the overreaction of outrage, between teeth-gritted vengeance and the greater difficulty of forgiveness. They will act out this balance every day on every playground in America.

The New York Times correspondent Serge Schemann wrote that " ... the enemy was not a government, gang, or despot, but hatred. And a hatred powerful enough to motivate a person to live for years among his victims while preparing their common death is a form of madness, a disease.” Rather than the reckless acts of lunatics, the hijackings by highly organized and well-financed fanatics characterize the stalking syndrome of this new disease. And like the rot spreading unnoticed in my woodpile, the terrorists’ resolve and fury had grown cancerous beneath our averted eyes.

"My kids are OK," reported one father. "But we can't get them to move their sleeping bags from the edge of our bed, or to stop crawling in with us in the middle of the night. And we're not sure we care. We're kind of happy to have them with us."

***
On the morning of Sept. 11, other administrators huddled with me to try to figure out what to do. We knew we needed to inform the faculty, but we wondered if we should tell the children. Our question was answered by the line of parents who streamed into the school— some to take their children home, some just to hug and hold them. Dozens stayed all day, keeping watch. Finally, I called an assembly for the oldest students, explaining about the hijackings, finding a way to tell them about massive destruction, about the toll of death. Then I took their questions. The first was from a 7th grader: "Is this World War III?"

We will help children cope if they can witness actions rooted in justice rather than revenge. We must teach them that true power never comes from the flexed muscle of hatred. They must learn that in guarding the rights of all human beings (especially those whom we self-righteously homogenize into narrow categories of “other”), we ensure not only human dignity, but also personal and national security. We especially cannot allow religious differences, which too often have been what Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold called “a convenient way of ordering hatred and justifying violence,” to form the excuse that dissolves our humanity.

Like the dust descending after the collapse of buildings, sadness and uncertainty have settled into our world. In the rubble left in the wake of unspeakable violence, however, lies an opportunity to transform the broken relationships that caused that collapse. Children need to see us address the syndrome of hatred we have neglected for too long. We owe them at least an attempt at seeking the ancient promise of beating our swords into plowshares.


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