The West Is Burning; What Do We Tell the Children?
In the fall of 2019, my daughter’s fourth-grade class took a field trip to the Portland Art Museum to see Hank Willis Thomas’s All Things Being Equal. In a series of emails prior to the visit, her teacher prepared parents for what our children would encounter: a thoughtful exploration by a Black artist of race, social justice, violence, and privilege.
My children’s public school strives to prepare students to be engaged, participatory citizens and residents of the world, and they tackle issues with empathy and curiosity. When the State of Oregon instructed schools to educate third graders on Oregon history, my daughter’s class explored the racist language in Oregon’s founding documents, the Chinese exclusion laws, and the razing of predominantly Black neighborhoods to build highways and hospitals.
I fully supported students learning Oregon’s true history, one steeped in discrimination and stolen lands. They critiqued the popular cultural narrative involving hipsters, beards, pour-overs, and naked cyclists, a story scribed by White people, that minimized and ignored a deeper, more painful history.
However, visiting the Portland Art Museum and Thomas’s work somehow felt different to me. The teacher shared with parents imagery of the artist’s piece entitled “14,719.” It’s comprised of a series of navy-blue panels that resemble the American flag, hanging ceiling to floor and embroidered with 14,719 white stars. This is how many people were shot and killed in 2018. Each star represents a stolen life.
I worried that, after learning about the dark realities of gun violence, my daughter, and her little sister by extension, would develop fears as massive and consuming as the one I had as a child.
Growing up in the 1980s in suburban Connecticut, my greatest fear was nuclear war with Russia. The film The Day After was so well-publicized that I actually thought I saw it; rather, I’d only seen the trailers with their mushroom clouds and blown-out windows. Still, I had frequent nightmares. Although we weren’t a very religious family, I prayed each night that my family members would remain unharmed by nuclear bombs; if I forgot a loved one in my prayer, I couldn’t sleep until I said their name aloud.
I wonder if my parents tried to shield me from the threat, if they attempted to assuage my terror, or if they wished I would have never had to learn about nuclear bombs at all.
As the day of the art museum visit approached, I found myself wishing that my children never had to learn about AR-15s, murders in the streets, the sanctity of gun culture for some Americans, and school shootings. That small suburban town in which I grew up borders Newtown, the former site of Sandy Hook Elementary School. I worried that the force of my fear around nuclear war would equal the force of my children’s fear of getting shot.
Could I control my children’s nightmares? I decided to try.
I approached my daughter’s teacher, hoping that perhaps my daughter alone could skip “14,719,” that she could arrive late, or that the whole class could avoid that particular exhibit hall. In voicing my concerns, I attempted respectfully to sway the teacher’s plans, and I wondered aloud if I were the only parent expressing worry. I let her know that I wasn’t ready for my children to learn about school shootings and gun violence. Didn’t I get to make that call?
The teacher looked at me gently in the doorway of the classroom as children settled at their desks that morning and said, “Some parents don’t have that luxury. They have to talk with their children about gun violence, often when they’re much younger.”
I felt tears begin to form, and all I could muster was a quiet, “Thank you. You’re right.”
Six months later, George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer, and I dove into the concepts of White privilege and White supremacy along with millions of other White Americans who had previously and contentedly conducted our affairs as if race didn’t exist. A year later, my children know about George Floyd and others who experienced his same fate; they’ve marched with me in support of Black lives; they are slowly learning about the inequities within our society.
And now, a million acres of our Oregon forests are aflame. Smoke has filled the skies over Portland, and maps show flames nearing the edge of our county. The sun looks like Mars and the sky like stained teeth. We stay indoors. We’ve laid tape along the edges of our 120-year-old windows. My friends text me evacuation checklists and wonder aloud where we all would go.
I question what to share with my children. With COVID wreaking havoc on their relationships, classroom experiences, and our family’s travel plans, I wonder what’s too much. With their creeping anxiety, tummy aches, and sleeping troubles, I ask myself what they need to know.
My daughter’s fourth-grade teacher reminded me that silence is a privilege. Does this mean we have a responsibility to always speak? When do we embrace that privilege and allow it to make our lives easier, even for a moment or a day, and when do we act on the knowledge that our privilege may just be another person’s suffering?
Today, I’m choosing silence. The truth feels like too much, just for today. I’m choosing to wait. I’ll watch the news; I’ll monitor the maps. I’ll try to recall where I stored the cat carrier, and I’ll make a mental list of the photo albums that would come with us.
Upstairs, the children are finishing up their Google Meet class calls. They want to play games on their tablets, but they’ll do a typing exercise first. They’ll read a book. Later, we’ll order take-out and watch a movie. Tonight, my older daughter will choose what we see together as a family with the cat on our laps.
I hope it’s a comedy.