A Christmas Carol’s Justice

I’ve been thinking lately about fairness, justice, equity–and how these relate to the season’s spirit.  At the end of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the real, unabridged, print version)–spoiler alert–Tiny Tim doesn’t walk.  The real miracle is that Scrooge’s heart is changed.   Scrooge’s spiritual transformation may be more profound and is significantly more complicated than the pat miracle that appears at the end of some dramatic version of the story.  At the end of the book, Scrooge proclaims two significant things. One, we remember:  “I shall love [Christmas] as long as I live.”  This is the spirit of love and charity, giving trees, toy drives, thy fellow man, etc. etc.


Less frequently remembered is Scrooge’s vow: “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all three Three shall strive within me.”  The ghosts have taught him not just the spirit of charity and fellowship, but that we must remember the past and pay attention to the present if we are ever to change the grim future.  If Scrooge’s turkey is given to the Cratchit family in the spirit of Christmas charity, his action the following day: raising his clerk’s salary is an act of justice: righting the root cause of poverty. In fact, what Scrooge agrees to is to pay his employee a living wage.


Why have we (mostly) forgotten this part of Dickens’ very modern, very timely message?


What Scrooge learns from the Spirits is not just to keep Christmas (love, generosity) alive the year round, but to live in a way that calls for intelligence, memory, and action: we are all responsible for the welfare of our community.  To ignore this fact, and live as if the poverty and pain of others is not our business, this risks not only their tragedy and demise (the specter of Tiny Tim’s death) but, as the Ghost of the Future clearly shows Scrooge, it risks our own literal and spiritual death.


Beyond Giving

As the holiday season ramps up, giving in all its forms is pervasive, which is as it should be.  We give to our families, our friends, our communities.  My children’s monthly community outreach project is a toy drive, and they’ve each generously selected some new and gently used toys to contribute.   There is a giving tree at church, so we have donated new toys in this way, too.  The local library is collecting food (and offering fine reduction for donations); my husband’s work has a giving tree; and I think the fire department also collects toys and stuffed animals.  The point is that there are very many opportunities to give, and all of them are good.  We should be giving charitably at this time of year, when so many of our holidays are focused on consumption, much of it conspicous. Certainly, I want my children to be generous, to grow up with charitable natures, to be aware that very many others are not nearly as privileged as they are.  And so far, thanks to our church, their school, our activities over the years, this message has been mostly absorbed.  My 6-year old son didn’t think twice about donating duplicate presents he recently received. But he did balk at donating a dinosaur puzzle that I think he’s outgrown and a strange building set that seemed like good idea but hasn’t seen much play.

But there has to be more than giving, and I don’t mean simply that we should give back year round, not just at holiday times when organizations and schools make it easy.   Charity really only deals with symptoms, not with causes. Just as some of us feel ethically obliged to give, I think that we’re morally obligated to fight for justice.  Without trying to change the root causes of economic injustice and other inequalities, charity can be cosmetic.  This was the surprising message of the sermon in our church last week, on the second Sunday of Advent.  In the middle of the season of giving and charity, and collecting coats for the homless-all necessary, admirable work–our pastor actually said, yes, charity, but we have to do more. He talked about the necessity for change, and specifically the need for immigration reform. He did not mention the DREAM act, not in so many words, but it must have been on his mind.  This is the thing:  the Catholic church is not a single issue church.  And it never has been. Charitable work goes hand in hand with social justice work.  Our pastor and many others in our area have been involved in campaigns for social justice, a living wage, immigration reform, for years.   In many ways, his call for peace with justice is the same call that many secular organizations make.

It is an attitude and a way of life that I want to instill in my children: give freely, but also fight for justice.  I’m not sure where to start (they’re 8 and 6), but we can start in our own backyards by teaching them fairness, equality, respect for each other.  We can start small by talking about things like fair pay and fair taxes and why we think the DREAM act should be passed.    And I can challenge myself to be more engaged, because really it isn’t enough just to leave those presents under the tree at Church.  Unless one of them is Helen Thorpe’s amazing book, Just Like Us, which should be required reading for anyone who cares about the immigration debate.  Her inspired story and first-rate reporting follow four talented girls through high school–two documented, two undocumented, chronicling their (unequal) fortunes and their futures.  The story will inspire and haunt you.

Just Right Reading

This is the best thing I’ve read about guiding kids’ reading habits, and it perfectly reflects our beliefs here: beautiful picture books are a good thing for all ages; alongside that Harry Potter she may well read Diary of a Wimpy Kid or FreckleJuice; Captain Underpants is perfectly appropriate; so was My Pretty Pony; there is such a thing as too soon…

In our house, the rule is that if you can read it, you are allowed to read it.

Squanto's Journey

A confession:  I love Pilgrims.

I think Pilgrims are underrated, misunderstood, and oversimplified.  “Pilgrims” by the way accurately refers only to those Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620.  For instance, while Pilgrim chastity is the stuff of legend, you might be interested to know that all sexual deviance–from homosexuality to sex with turkeys and goats (which really is historically documented: in one incredible scene in which a young man accused of the latter actually points out the specific turkeys he had relation with…)–was considered the same order of sin.  And while they did believe that everything was Providential (according to God’s will) they knew one could never really, truly know that one was elect. You might be pretty certain, but you could never be positive.  This led to much study and scholarship, cultivated soul searching and personal responsibility. The rebelled against the corrupt Anglican church and thus cultivated, ironically, a kind of independent thinking.  They worked hard and were humble. All those stereotypical New England Puritan virtues are based in some interesting historical fact.

Moreover, their journey from grave persecution in England to Holland to the “New” World took over 13 years, and the passage and arrival was difficult and epic.  They arrived in winter, in Massachussets, to a wild and unforgiving coast. True, the Native Americans had survived there for a long time, and there were other colonies, but the Pilgrims were ill-equipped for the task.  Plus, nearly half of their 100 members died that first winter. It was a difficult and terrible time, and no one was certain of survival. But thanks to the help of the Wampanoag and especially the Pautaxet Squanto, they survived and even thrived. Thus, the first Thanksgiving really was a feast of plenty and of thanks, and it was attended by twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Also, it lasted 3 days, at the end of which the Indians shot and offered 5 deer to the colonists, which no doubt helped them through the 2nd winter. And while this interval of good will between Pilgrims and Indians did not last, it was real and significant, and it marked a turning point in the colony’s success.

So one of my missions (in life? in my family?) is to translate what was incredible about their story in a meaningful and balanced (and, of course age appropriate) way. I think that if you consider the first Thanksgiving in the context of the Pilgrim’s really extraordinary exile, hardship, adventure, starvation, illness, compromise, and reliance on the Indians,  it becomes, truly, a kind of miraculous story of survival and success and a moment of peace and possibility.  Modern Thanksgiving is about none of this, and I think that’s kind of too bad.

For instance, how many of us celebrates Thanksgiving as a religious holiday? (Which was certainly part of the Pilgrim’s feast, since everything returned to God..)

And how many of us really, truly celebrates it as a feast of harvest or plenty?   How many of us shop exclusively at farmer’s markets for the season’s bounty for tables? How many go and shoot the abundant native fowl or deer in our regions? Or even bother to search out an heirloom bird? Or fish in local waters for the abundant catch available at harvest time? (there were a lot of lobsters in New England).  That we don’t is okay, of course. Traditions morph.  But I do think it’s important to remember what started all of this feasting anyway, and remember that simply being thankful for family and health and abundance in our middle class home is something we should do everyday of the year. It seems sort of empty to me to make this the only focus of the holiday. Then again, I do have a PhD in American literature. I love history. And Pilgrims.

In sum: I think the day is enriched for kids if it’s put into an accurate historical and sort of somber historical context.

Thus: every year, we make a Thanksgiving movie (See 2007 & 2008). This year, Ella, who is on the fast track to becoming a spy reporter and has a penchant for writing nonfiction decided we had to make an Historical & Fun movie.  Of course, I leapt at the chance in and in less time than it takes to Google Mayflower, I was parsing my grad school copy of William Bradford’s journal-turned-formal-account of Pilgrim History, Of Plymouth Plantation and reading her the juicy bits about the journey and the landing at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving (but not, of course, the turkeys…)  The book became our primary source for the film (which should be released this weekend, God of the Pilgrims willing) and I never thought I’d see the day my 7-year-old parsed a footnote of a 17th century text looking for a detail.

Of course, I’m not recommending you all go read the entirety of Bradford’s account, which really is best studied in a PhD seminar, but the short DVD William Bradford: The First Thanksgiving in The Animated Hero classic series is excellent as far as Pilgrims go.  It’s historically accurate and gives children a good sense of their decades of hardship and deprivation as well as the absolute necessity of Squanto and the Wampanoag in their surivival.  Paired with the really excellent Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac, which details Squato’s kidnapping, the decimation of his tribe, his return to America and his providential meeting with the colonists,  your child can have a fuller, deeper, more balanced and accurate sense of what that first feast was all about and why any of us should give a damn about the Pilgrims and Indians and in the first place.

Next year, it’s Squanto’s turn.



In light of the recent war toys debate, here, which has not faded in our house in spite of my son’s new addiction to LEGO (which does include lots of swords and whips and guns, accessories which I painstakingly pulled out of all his earlier sets but now wouldn’t think of editing out…), I wanted to share an anti-war book for kids.

NO! by David MchPhail is exactly the kind of book that can help define the difference the between real and imagined violence and further complicate the discussion about the consequences of aggression.

Dedicated “to teachers everywhere,” the near-textless book relates the story of a young boy living amidst war and occupation.  There are overtones of the Third Reich and, for me, of occupied cities of Belfast, where young children really did see, everyday, heavily armed solidiers and tanks on the streets of their neighborhoods. Many of the images are disturbing (soldiers kicking down a door, dogs chasing and biting a foot, billy clubs). On his way to mail a letter to “The President” the boy is bullied, and responds with an emphatic, “NO!”

In the wake of this powerful the bully relents, the dog is pacified, the soldiers lay down their guns, presents are exchanged on the street, a war plane parachutes a bicycle, the smoke from the bombed cities is transformed into clouds.

On the one hand, the book might be naive & sentimental dreaming. On the other hand, the poetry of the illustrations and the elemental narrative make this a profoundly moving book.  It demonstrates the visceral horror of war, which is something we actually do discuss with our oldest. I have not shied away from conversations about September 11, Osama Bin Laden, slavery and the Civil War, and, most recently, Adolf Hitler and the reasons for the Second World War.  I try not to frighten, but I do not shelter her.  This book presents war and violence as the reality for some young lives, and it shows clearly that violence and aggression against others might be a matter of degree more than of kind.

But most important, it shows the power of No, which is the refusal to participate in what is wrong, harmful, and unjust. This refusal might be as simple as standing up to a bully on the playground or as complicated as becoming a conscientious objector–or anywhere in between. It’s a book which gives children a voice and begins to show them how they might use it to make a real difference in their very own lives. And this, I would submit is the difference between teaching your children what is right and wrong and allowing them to play imaginatively with light saber on a ship bound for the high seas….


The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

I’ve been quiet here partly because we’ve been gone for much of the summer, but also because we’ve been slowly figuring out what community service and civic life mean for our young kids now that the immediate energy and opportunity of the election has passed. These are sobering times, and getting involved certainly requires more effort. But the process of educating young children is always embedded in the family, and for the very youngest, I’ve been reminded that it can be embedded in play.

Last year we discovered the excellent picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.  It’s a biography of Phillipe Petit, which captures all the drama and poetry of his career and its culminating walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.  My children were both captivated by it, especially Finn, who spent one morning reconstructing a cardboard model  of the site.



We also made the decision to show them both Man on Wire, which Ella astutely realized “was just like detective movie” in the first minutes.  And indeed, it is, and they were both mesmerized by the film and its images. (There is definitely one questionable, celebratory naked scene at the end, but it passed right by them while we held our breath.)   But  because of its context and visual imagery, the film is also for the astute adult observer, not simply an homage to the poetry and majesty of Petit’s accomplishment, but a requiem for the Towers and those who perished there.   My children didn’t realize this exactly, of course, but they did have a sense, watching it,  that something had once been that no longer was.

The book, written post September 11,  states simply that the Towers no longer exist.  When we read it to Finn, we explained exactly why.  The story offered me another opportunity to discuss the tragedy, and terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Ella.   Everyone in my family lost a friend or a colleague or a childhood acquaintance in the Towers, so the tragedy is immediate and personal for us.

And so, when we visited the east coast this summer, we drove by the Pit, as some New Yorkers call the site of Ground Zero, on our way to Brooklyn, and they both got to see the tremendous scale of the event.  We didn’t stop, but it was sad and satisfying that they got to see something of the reality of it, and that they could begin to understand some of its hard significance.  It’s a lot for a small child, I know.  It’s a lot for me, and for all of us. But it is as much a part of their world as endangered panda bears and polluted lakes, and this book, and that movie, and the actual site are ways that begin to make it real and meaningful.  They are ways slowly to begin the hard and difficult discussion about what happened and why and where we are now and what might come next.

Why _is_ Obama our first Black President?

That’s the question I fielded not so long ago from the back seat of the car, while we were waiting to pick up Ella’s brother from preschool.

I was not unprepared, but really, how do you explain institutionalized racism to a 6-year old? Ella, of course, had been excited about the election for every reason but race, but clearly, now she had figured out that there was something else exciting and different about his victory.

For a long time, I avoided the slavery issue by carefully picking the books we read. But last year, I felt she was ready because  Ella had specific questions, raised by Lincoln’s birthday celebration and the Civil War.  We had long discussions about those things and racism and about Martin Luther King, but it was all on a need-to-know basis, and directly related to concrete examples that had surfaced in books.

So now I responded by asking her a question, “Do you remember how most Black people first got to this country?” And I asked her to retell me the story we had just read which she did with precise recall.

“Alec’s Primer” is one of the most excellent, invaluable books for children you could hope for. It tells the story of a young boy, born into slavery, who is secretly taught to read by his master’s granddaughter, and which skill–reading–helps him to escape to freedom.  It is a true story, based on historical documents, and it avoids completely the kind of sentimentality and soft-peddling of slavery that can happen in some fiction books. It offers some of the most brutal facts–beatings, thwarted escapes, restriction on education, separation of families–without overwhelming a young reader with the sheer horror of it.  It made an enormous impression on Ella in many ways–the hard, horrible facts of slavery, the extraordinary bravery of Alec, the vital necessity of reading and education.

So, as she remembered Alec’s story, we talked about what happened after the slaves were freed by Lincoln, and that even though they were free, they still weren’t equal.   She learned then about separate counters in restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate schools. The ban on interracial marriage, the danger of friendships across the color line. We didn’t get to the back of the bus, but I imagine that Rosa Parks will take care of that very, very soon.

She was thoughtful.  She wanted to know if Obama’s family were once slaves, so I had to explain no, not in American, but maybe some of his family was stolen from Africa a long time ago. I explained that at all times in our history white people had treated dark skinned people hatefully–Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Japanese during WW II,  Latinos, still.

She asked about “good” white people, who didn’t own slaves, who worked the underground railroad, about Lincoln.  Then the spiral began.  She wanted to know about war. Was there a war now? Do we know people in it? Were people dying? Yes. Yes. And probably.   We briefly touched on the concept of “just war”–though not in those terms, since I had to explain that soldiers, innately & by profession, were not necessarily bad.  Sometimes, I said, people had to fight wars.  Which is a concept I still wrestle with.

And then the clincher:  Why did people fight wars anyway?  Lots of ways, I said.  What’s the main reason, she wanted to know. Tell me the main reason people fight wars.  Power, I said. And resources. More land, more water, more oil. By this point, we had moved well beyond race, and the dialogue had gone well beyond the back seat of the car.  I figured my point had been made well enough for the time being. “Need to know” is a tricky concept with a voraciously curious child, their education ongoing.

Other great books about immigration and race, that fueled our talk:  Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say; Landed by Milly Lee