Since my cousins were quite young, my Aunt Janet and Uncle Be Be had the wonderful idea to have a picnic in their basement to avoid the possibility of stray bullets from New Year’s Eve revelers. When they first started, they would go to Cleveland’s fabulous Westside Market for fruits, cheese and crackers that they enjoyed on their blanket. The next year they added a chicken nugget platter to the fruits, cheese and crackers. My cousin sent me pictures of their most recent feast and it featured barbecue ribs, chicken, fruits, cheese and crackers. This year, I’m following my family’s example.
Anytime I’ve ever told someone about my family’s picnic, they’ve thought it was a terrific idea. This is the first year that I think I’ll have the stamina to actually make it to midnight so that I can enjoy feasting. We’re planning on having barbecue ribs, chicken strips, cucumber, celery, carrots and vegetable dip, and a cheese plate. I’ll take pictures and share them with you.
I have continued to think about the relationship between our nation’s past and Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. On this particular morning, Christmas Eve, I thought about the touching scene in Spike Lee’s documentary film, 4 Little Girls, where Coretta Scott King reads the letter that her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed to the family of Denise McNair. Denise was one of four black girls killed when a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Stanford University, which holds a substantial portion of the King papers, reveals the contents of the letter as it appears in Chapter 21 of King’s autobiography. The letter reads as follows:
CHRISTMAS LETTER TO THE FAMILY OF DENISE MCNAIR
Dear Mr. and Mrs. McNair:
Here in the midst of the Christmas season my thoughts have turned to you. This has been a difficult year for you. The coming Christmas, when the family bonds are normally more closely knit, makes the loss you have sustained even more painful. Yet, with the sad memories there are the memories of the good days when Denise was with you and your family.
As you know, many of us are giving up our Christmas as a memorial for the great sacrifices made this year in the Freedom Struggle. I know there is nothing that can compensate for the vacant place in your family circle, but we did want to share a part of our sacrifice this year with you. Perhaps there is some small thing dear to your heart in which this gift can play a part.
I’m sure at any historical moment such a material sacrifice during Christmas would have been seen as an extraordinary memorial, but as I am thinking about this in the context of our times, it appears radical, spectacular, thoughtful, and moving. Can you imagine how such a sacrifice would be perceived in our time of “Black Friday” and 24 hour last-minute shopping “opportunities” before Christmas? I can only imagine what it would mean for those families to know that Americans were making a memorial of sacrifice as a tribute to their loss. People have made beautiful and loving tributes, but what I find so compelling about King’s gesture is that it called for withholding goods as opposed to giving them; it’s a model that I have not seen in our own times.
It is hard to imagine any violent incident in American culture being without an historical antecedent as this is an extremely violent culture. As terrible as the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school is, the violence there is not without a horrific precedent. Its horror parallels the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church nearly fifty years ago. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded as the congregation prepared for its “Youth Day” service. Four of five girls downstairs in the lady’s lounge were killed instantly.
The girls were all quite young, Denise McNair was eleven and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were all fourteen. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, two black boys, thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware and sixteen-year-old Johnny Robinson were also killed. Ware was killed by a white teenager, Larry Joe Sims, an Eagle Scout who was driving home after attending a segregationist rally. A police officer, Jack Parker, shot Robinson in the back as he was a part of a group throwing rocks at a white segregationist’s car as rioting ensued in the streets. Historically, violence in America has known no sacred bounds.
In the documentary film 4 Little Girls that commemorates the bombing, director Spike Lee shows a photograph that I wish I could find that captures the devastation of the crime. The photo shows a relatively old man who you would think had seen it all but who has turned away from the church clearly weeping and distraught; he was clearly astonished by what he had observed. Families didn’t know quite how to handle the devastation. I learned from reading Carolyn McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched: A Birmingham Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movementthat Birmingham schools were open the Monday immediately following the bombing and she was one of those who went to school. Johnny Robinson’s family offers the same story in the NPR segment that I link to above. They went to school the day following their brother’s death just as McKinstry went to school the day following a dear friend’s death. The impact of moving on so quickly without having psychological or emotional support took a toll on McKinstry’s mental health. Interestingly, Christopher Paul Curtis engages just this possibility in his commemoration of the bombing represented in his first children’s book, The Watson’s Go To Birmingham–1963. The young protagonist in that tale briefly descends into madness as a result of the bomb’s devastation. These stories suggest that rushing into “normal” may not be a good idea. Perhaps tragedies like these offer us an opportunity to redefine exactly what “normal” might be.
In thinking about this new normal, with an eye towards history, I have been quite interested in the gun control discussion. Attempts to nuance the discussion have turned towards an examination of new gun control laws and considerations of mental illness. Mental illness is not new to our world. I’m not convinced that adding mental illness into this discussion of gun control necessarily makes us safer. Perhaps a richer conversation about the quality of our cultural experience needs to frame these talks. In earlier times, like during the Civil Rights era, people could be shamed by their behavior. It was one of the reasons why the media was so important to the Movement. Photographs of police dogs attacking unarmed people and water hoses being turned against nonviolent protestors shamed the federal government. We seem to live in a shameless era. How does the permissiveness of our times inform recent gun violence? In his remarks at the memorial service in Newtown, President Obama asked the nation to reflect on how honest we have been in our efforts to make our communities safe for our children. In general, the concept of honesty is important for us to consider. We are not honest with ourselves about our efforts regarding safety or most other things. A dear friend and I couldn’t stop talking about descriptions of Adam Lanza and some of these other shooters as “brilliant.” Brilliant people, we surmised, do not enter movie theaters and shoot-up unarmed patrons. Brilliant people do not go to elementary schools and massacre defenseless children. Brilliant people compose “Sugar, Rum, Cherry;” brilliant people write Beloved; brilliant people paint the Migration Series. Brilliance is generative, not destructive. What is behind the media’s commitment to this description of Lanza? It seems dishonest.
Even if there were gun laws in place regarding the procurement of weapons and mental illness, from what we know of Nancy Lanza, who was tragically killed by her son, she was not mentally ill. She did however, think that her son suffered from Aspergers. Whether it was the Aspergers or something else, she apparently cautioned a baby sitter against diverting attention from Adam, “even to go to the bathroom.” So one wonders why she decided it was safe to have guns around him. Was she being honest with herself about what he was capable of? How would gun laws reasonably respond to such issues of judgement? How do we account for the delusions of those who are sane even as we consider restricting the rights of those who are not?
In going forward, I think we need to turn to the past. Our violent history should be instructive to us. Perhaps it could give us some clues about how we respond to our grief; how we move beyond fear; how we move on.
My next door neighbor coaches his sons’ youth football team. A few weeks ago, he noticed that our three-year-old, who was born on the same day as his youngest child, was just as tall as his six-year-old so he asked my husband to let our son play for his team. My husband declined his offer and also explained that our son’s height didn’t automatically qualify him for sharing the field with children three years older than him. My neighbor argued that it would be safe and went on to tell my husband that only two kids from his team had to go to the emergency room this season. My husband found little comfort in those numbers and neither did I.
At my son’s play school, three-year-olds and six-year-olds don’t even share the same playground, nor should they. On all developmental levels, there is far too much difference between these sets of children. If the play school won’t even let these children share the same play space, there is no way to justify lining three-year-olds up against six-year-olds on a football field.
I’ve already been approached by basketball coaches asking me to bring my kid out for their teams. Most recently, I was approached as we were leaving the library after our weekly visit. That coach wasn’t pushy. He just recommended it because he noticed my son’s size but also his enthusiasm for “ready, set, go,” which he likes to play outside on the library’s walkway.
Other than size, I don’t quite understand why my son seems to be considered such a worthy candidate for organized sports. Just a few months ago, my son was frustrated by games that were appropriate for his age group. Thus, when I came to pick him up one afternoon he was crying because, as he explained it, he couldn’t sit in the chair of his choice. When I went into his classroom because he left his jacket behind, his tears made more sense to me. “Miles,” I explained, “your classmates are playing musical chairs. A chair is taken away each time the music stops. You can’t just have the seat you want. That’s not how the game is played.” He no longer cries about musical chairs but his frustration with the basic premise of that game does not lead me to believe that football or basketball would be the natural next step for him.
My husband and I both competed in big time, Division I sports; my husband even played football. We know very few former athletes who are eager to get their children involved in organized sports. If our son at some point becomes interested in sports, fine, but we’re certainly not going to push it; especially now. Neither of us sees the value in creating a commitment to daily practice and weekend competition for toddlers and pre-school age children. I must admit, I even find it ridiculous when the youth sports coaches we know discuss their win-loss records. “So what?” I want to ask them. No serious athletics program goes looking at pee-wee park leagues for recruits. And for good reason: anyone with the money to pay the dues can get their kid a spot on the team; and how good is your six-year-old when he’s teeing off on a three-year-old! Give me a break.
During football season, my neighbors didn’t make it home from practice until well after 8 p.m. most days. Their oldest son, who was on some kind of advanced academic track, got his first C ever as he found managing his first year of middle school and his practice schedule difficult. My neighbors seemed proud to tell us that their son has to stay up until midnight to complete his homework. We weren’t impressed. If you are going to involve your children in youth sports, their lives should be organized so that their school work gets done before practice, but midnight is far too late for a child in middle school to be awake.
It also troubles me that these children who play organized sports seem to do it year round. There is no time when they’re learning an instrument, practicing their lines for a play, sitting still. Sports don’t seem to contribute to the richness of their experiences; they constitute the whole of experience.
For now I say, “let them play tag!” Tag is a perfectly fine game that costs no money and requires no special uniform or equipment. If not tag, then something like it, but the point is, you do not have to sign your toddler up for youth sports because of their size.
My mother and one of her friends recommended PortableNorthPole.com to me. It’s a site that allows you to work with Santa in composing a personalized video message for a special recipient. I highly recommend this site. My son watched his special message for over an hour last night and woke up asking for it this morning. What was really neat was that the message was slightly different this morning…and this was the free service! I was so impressed that I bought the App for my iPhone for $2.99 and I’ll probably be upgrading the video options as well.
I never lived a single day of my life in or near 1929 but because my grandmother was a child of the depression, it touched every aspect of my home life growing-up. I think about this all the time when I consider our current beliefs about how children should be raised so that they should never know hard times. This was not how people thought about child rearing when I came of age. They may not have believed in showing their vulnerabilities but the adults I knew certainly believed that children should know of their sacrifices. How much something cost or how long it took to acquire was not a secret. Do you know how much water costs? was asked of me anytime I left the water running in the sink for too long. Do you know how much electricity costs? was the question put to me if I left lights turned on or kept the refrigerator door open while I searched for something to eat. It seemed like I was always being asked to think about how much money it cost to live.
I wonder why people don’t make their children think about expenses anymore? A friend recently shared with me that a year before she was planning to apply for college, her parents sat her down and explained how much money they had to spend on her education. That total included transportation costs, books, and incidentals. My friend teaches at a private college now and was reflecting on her own experiences upon encountering current students who seem surprised that their parents are struggling to afford their tuition. One student confessed that her parents asked her to transfer to a less expensive school but the student refused because “she was enjoying her experience.” I never would have been given that kind of choice when I needed my mother’s money. My mother, like my friend’s parents, would have simply told me what I was going to do.
I liked those days of parenting better than the ones we’re living through now. I don’t think that children should tell adults what to do. The things my husband reports students saying to him just appall me. In thinking about his experiences in the classroom alongside other stories that I have heard about the things young people say and do who have not been made to respect the work and sacrifices of adults, I have come up with a list of things adults should considering telling children to either establish or reinforce the hierarchy:
1. No (you do not have to say yes to your children).
2. Hush (you can make your children stop talking).
3. Put that X away (your children are not entitled to video games, toys, etc).
4. Read this.
5. Do X (your children need to do as they are told).
6. Answer me.
7. Come here.
8. Go there.
So what do you think of my list? What would you add?