Everything bad that happens in the world feels worse to me because I teach young children.
The day job that I chose, in order to make some kind of living while pursuing acting and writing, could have been anything. Waiting tables. Selling tickets. Secretarial work. Instead, I ended up spending my days with members of the most vulnerable population on earth, charged with making the world make sense to them. And sometimes, it’s really, really hard.
Two of the kids in my class are currently on a long vacation with their families in Europe. They planned to visit several countries and places, but they were to begin in Nice, France. I don’t know their itineraries, but I know that Nice was their first stop, and they’ve been gone for over a week, so they probably aren’t there any more. They probably weren’t there on Bastille Day, when someone in a truck killed almost a hundred people while they were watching fireworks. They weren’t, right? Probably not. At this point, I don't actually know.
The thing is, I kind of predicted it. The day after the attack on the Brussels airport happened, I was playing with the girl who would be taking that vacation in a couple of months. I imagined the world without her brightness, her enthusiasm. The songs she sings, whichever one she's learned most recently, weirdly in tune for a five-year-old. At an age when most children can’t fathom that adults have lives outside of their relevance to themselves, she regularly asks me what I did over the weekend, how I am feeling. I imagined a world without that compassion.
She’s going over there, where they can hurt her. Whoever they are. As if they are far away and not everywhere, all the time.
I was on vacation when the attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando happened. Four days later, I had to go to work and cheerily lead circle time, read stories, prepare snacks. While I explain to these kids that we include everyone in our games, that excluding is unkind and hurts people, they have to overhear, on the news, a person who could be their president make speeches about banning people who are different from him from their country.
The only black child in my class occasionally says to me, casually, as though complimenting my shoes, “I like your skin color!” The only thing I can think to say is, “Thank you, I like your skin color, too!” During the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we talked briefly about how a long time ago, the country had rules that made it okay to treat people badly because they looked different from you, and Martin Luther King, Jr. worked really hard to change the rules so that people had to treat everyone equally.
We didn’t talk about race. We don’t talk about race. Even though, when we read books with illustrations of darker skinned characters, the kids always point them out as looking like the one black child. We say, everyone looks different. We put the differences of light-skinned and dark-skinned people in the same category as people with long hair and people with short hair. We do it because we want them to grow up believing that. We do it because we think, we hope, that if they never learn that racism exists, they will sprout up into a generation of unconditional love.
We do it, too, because it’s not our place. Obviously. It’s not my place as a teacher to explain to them how the words “black lives matter” could possibly be controversial. It’s not my place to tell them what the leaders of the civil rights movement had to go through to change those rules. It’s not my place to tell them it didn’t work. To tell them, during our unit about community helpers, that there are some police officers who won’t protect you. Especially you, the boy who looks like Alton Sterling’s children. The boy who is the same age and color as Diamond Reynolds’s daughter, who watched Philando Castile die from the backseat.
One September day in fourth grade, I came into school and my teacher was acting strange, and she was trying to decide if she should tell us something or not. We encouraged her to tell us, smiling because we thought it would be some kind of fun surprise. She had to clarify that it was not a good thing. Then she made the decision to turn on the classroom television and let us watch as the news played footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I didn’t realize this was unusual until I discussed it with friends, years later. Some of them had attended assemblies that broke the news in a controlled way. Some of them went home early without understanding why. Some of their teachers just went on with the school day without letting on, without saying a word. None of them watched like my class did. I can’t imagine making the decision to turn on the TV. But I can’t imagine moving on without acknowledging it, letting everyone goof around and laugh like it was a normal day.
This is different, though. These kids are in preschool. The father of the black boy in my class is much better equipped to talk to him about these things than I am. The two dads of another girl I teach obviously understand better than I do when and how to talk to her about LGBT rights. But what about the white kids? What about the kids with straight parents? What about the boys, who I have to correct when they tell the girls they can’t play Avengers, or when they shame each other for wanting to pretend to be the girl puppy from PAW Patrol? Who is going to talk to them about this stuff?
None of this changes the fact that it’s still not my place, and it never will be. But it makes me feel powerless. I am a parent with no children. I am responsible for feeding them, getting them to sleep, wiping their bottoms, cuddling them, giving them love. I’m responsible for their growth and development, for their intellectual progress, for teaching them to be considerate and empathic human beings. But they are not mine.
So, I do what I can. I talk about how, “If we were all the same, the world would be so boring!” I stop and discuss with them when someone refers to nail polish as ‘girl stuff.’ When I read books to them, I sometimes change the pronouns to ‘she’ and ‘her,’ because I don’t want them to decide that being a boy is a prerequisite for being important enough to have a story. When they ask me tough questions, I answer as honestly as I can. Ghosts aren’t real, so you don’t have to be scared. Dragons aren’t real, either. Dinosaurs used to be. True love is.
Bad guys are real. I try to make sure they understand that.
But good guys are real, too.