On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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The kids tell me we are winning. Baghdad is bad, they say. America is the best.
I work in the library of a low-income public school. I can see the kids are interested in war. The boys check out all the books about World War I, World War II, weapons, spies, codes, guns, castles, and knights. Boys without fathers are especially interested in combat. A six-year-old who has never met his father likes to show me pictures of his father’s castle, his father’s armor, his father’s helmet, his father’s favorite weapon. He is a sensitive boy who cries easily and wears army camouflage to school.
Today I read the second-graders a picture book called The Librarian of Basra, by Jeanette Winter. It’s the true account of an Iraqi librarian and the people close to her, working to keep the library’s books safe as their city is bombed.
When I tell the kids that the story takes place in Iraq, Joaquin calls out, “We’re winning!” And some of the others, misunderstanding the look on my face and hoping, I think, to reassure me, agree: “We are winning.”
The kids repeat what they hear at home. I don’t tell them that their parents are wrong, that no one in his or her right mind can call what is happening in Iraq “winning” — unless they measure victory by the number of dead. If it’s a killing contest, we’re winning 100 to 1.
I don’t ask them how “we” got to be so narrowly defined: As if a nation were a football team. As if the word we were only big enough to include some of the people. As if the fact that we are Americans were more important than the fact that we are human.
People liked to go to the library in Basra to discuss ideas, the book says, but soon they began to talk only about war: Would it come there? Would their families be safe? Would bombs drop on them? Who among them would die? The librarian worried about the books, among them a seven-hundred-year-old biography of Mohammed. Our own country is about one-third the age of that book. The children I’m reading to are seven years old.
The library of Basra had thirty thousand books — five books for every book we have in our school library, I point out — and the librarian and her friends moved all those books to keep them safe. The librarian packed her house with them. I show them the picture. Every space is filled.
Winter’s book is about people taking care of the things they love. It’s a story about courage. It’s about personal responsibility, about the love of ideas and stories, about respect for those who came before us, and concern for those who will come after. It is a book about America and its disregard for all these things, I think, but I don’t say that.
When I get to the picture of planes flying over, dropping bombs, one of the kids calls out excitedly, “That’s us!”
I turn the book so I can look again at the picture: three planes in a blue sky, dropping bombs on the city below. Usually it’s best to let a book speak for itself, but sometimes I can’t stop myself from making editorial comments. “Is it something to be proud of?” I ask them.
In school we try to teach the kids to use words to solve problems. We encourage them to talk, to listen to others, to take personal responsibility, not to blame. We tell them not to hit, not to fight, not to bully. But the kids do fight and argue. They blame each other. They bully, tease, and hit. Sometimes they wait secretly to beat each other up after school. Our kids live in a culture that says it’s better to be the big guy, to carry the big stick; it’s better to be part of the winning team, to be the one dropping bombs, instead of the one dodging them.
The wars we fight seem far away, but it’s not as simple as that. War doesn’t stay over there. It comes home with the soldiers, and it comes home to our kids, who learn that this is what we do, this is how we act, this is how we treat one another, this is who we are: our soldiers kicking in doors; our bombs falling on heads; our tanks driving through neighborhoods. Their dead piled up in the streets.
There is a boy in our school from Korea named Jimmy. He came here two years ago and is very shy. Every week he checks out his two books, usually picture books about Curious George, a monkey. Until recently he had no friends. He ate lunch alone. He sat with no one, played with no one, talked to no one. Then he became friends with Carmen, a seven-year-old with curly black pigtails. Now he and Carmen are always together.
Yesterday Jimmy and Carmen’s class was in the library, and while the other kids checked out books, Carmen pretended she was the librarian. The kids like to pretend they are me. They like to sit behind my desk. I have a pair of phony glasses that look like my real glasses, and they like to wear them and pretend to check out books. They love to mimic adults. They are watching us all the time. They are watching and figuring out what people do, what’s important, how we treat each other.
Carmen sat in the rocking chair, where I sit to read to the kids, and she held a book so Jimmy could see the pictures. It was a science book with big, bright pictures of planets and stars, but as she pointed to one of the pictures, she said, “Jimmy, everyone wants friends.” She turned the page. “Jimmy, people die, but then, don’t worry, they come back alive again.”
This afternoon Carmen asks me to walk outside with her. She has left her library book on the far side of the school’s front lawn, and she asks me to watch while she runs across the lawn to get it. Today is a beautiful day. The sky is a delicate blue; the sun is shining; the dogwoods are in bloom. As I stand in the doorway and watch Carmen skip across the grass, it occurs to me that I am standing here because, in America, it isn’t considered safe for a child to walk across a field alone. In America, when a little girl wants to cross an empty schoolyard, she asks someone to watch her.
Last week Aaron told me he wants to be a soldier. “I thought you were going to be a weatherman,” I said. Aaron is a thoughtful little boy who loves to read about hurricanes, earthquakes, and natural disasters of all kinds. But lately he’s been reading about war.
“We’re the good guys,” he said.
“And how do you know we’re the good guys?” I asked him.
He’d been reading a book about the Mexican-American War. He found a picture in the book and showed me a group of dead Mexican soldiers. “Mostly Mexicans died,” he said, smiling.
We are a bilingual school. A third of our students are Mexican immigrants. When Aaron said that the dead were mostly Mexican and showed me the picture to prove it, he was not being mean or racist or hateful. He was pleased, I think, because we like to be distant from the dead. We like to think there is something about them that is not the same as us, something that makes their deaths all right, maybe even good.
Recently I went to a talk sponsored by a group called Iraqi Veterans against the War. The speaker came from a military family, with nothing in his background to make him question the war. But he was curious, and he liked to read. He researched the history of Iraq and our relationship with that country. His curiosity led him to the facts, which led him to the conclusion that the war was wrong.
As a librarian, I find this hopeful: even if children are given the wrong facts, even if they are susceptible to the ignorance of the adults around them, to the messages on TV, to the general violence they find themselves in — even then, if their curiosity is intact, they can find their way to the truth. I tell the kids that they live in one of the most powerful countries in the world and that it is their job to know as much as they can about that world.
We don’t raise these kids to kill people. We don’t raise them to have their arms or legs blown off, to drop bombs on families, to destroy towns, to watch their friends die, or to die themselves, for nothing, for less than nothing.
“So many people get hurt and killed in wars,” I said to Aaron. “Wars are sad things,” I told him.
Aaron’s class had left, and he stood by my desk. He is only seven, but he smiled and shook his head at me. I had missed the point completely. He put his small hands on my desk, leaned forward, and said, “We are winning.”
I enjoyed Alison Clement’s essay “Lessons from Basra” [September 2005]. As a middle-school teacher, I, too, question the type of behavior we are modeling for our youth when we go to war.
I wonder what a principal would do in the following situation: A boy has beat up another student, claiming that the student was plotting to attack him. Upon searching the accused student’s belongings and interviewing classmates, the principal finds no evidence to support the boy’s claim. What consequence would be appropriate for the boy? For a nation?