Saturday, July 21, 2012

Demons of Sixth Grade: Red Circles of Incineration

Image from National Geographic
I grew up fearing a demon. I wasn't alone. Many of us learned, whether in school or through the news, that this demon was out to get us. The demon was different than us. They didn't believe the same as we did. They wanted to hurt us, hurt us so much that they had these horrible weapons pointed in our direction. The demon was called the United Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

A specter of nuclear war hovered right outside my young mind. I didn't know why the USSR was the demon. No one ever took the time to actually teach me anything at all about the USSR. I just knew I was supposed to be scared. I also knew that I wasn't supposed to like "those" people.

My knowledge of the USSR? Minimal. Really none. My eighth grade history teacher, known for coming to class in a Elizabethan period outfit, skipped the lesson on the Soviet Union to "punish" us. He was mad, for some reason now faded from my memory, and refused to teach us. "This will be important stuff to you some day," the teacher said. "You'll be sorry you didn't get the lesson. We'll sit here in silence today."

Yeah. My public school wasn't the most progressive experience. I've come a long way from Center Junior High School. Hopefully they too have come a long way.

We have new demons to fear now. The process, however, is still the same. The xenophobia and ignorance is still the same. Children raised in the world since the World Trade Center came down have been taught by fearful adults to enact xenophobic fears toward people in Muslim countries--and people of the Muslim faith who are our neighbors in our own country.

The cycle continues. Someday a new demon will rise and replace our fear of Muslim people. When we turn our eyes away from the Muslim world they too, might turn their eyes away from us. They'll grow fearful of another demon as shall we. 

We seem to be unable to find our way out of this cycle of fearing that which is different. 

You can find this same xenophobia in the movie Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. Narrated by William Shatner, Trinity offers up stunning visual imagery of the destructiveness of the weaponry. It provides an engrossing and terrifying spectacle of destruction. The movie fails to question why the bomb was really developed. Maybe the horror is enough. The demon unleashed from the atom speaks for itself.

I wish the documentary moved beyond "othering" those outside of the United States. The same tired old xenophobia is laced through the movie. The bomb was developed, as suggested in the movie, to end a terrible war with Japan. It also makes allusions to needed to protect ourselves against the danger of another more ominous other, the Soviet Union. The most haunting image of all was at the end of the documentary. Horses raced onto a mock battle field, faces and eyes covered with gas masks. Riding the horses were similarly masked human soldiers. When the mask was removed we saw the rise of a new other--the Chinese tested their own nuclear bomb.

The horrifying cycle continues. German. Japanese. Soviet. Chinese. Muslim. We can't seem to find a way to see the other as part of ourselves. 

Click here to watch the movie

We hardly ever talk about nuclear war now. Now we fear terrorist acts. Dirty bombs, suitcase sized nuclear destruction, or biological warfare. Destruction can come in an envelope loaded with anthrax, or as demonstrated yesterday in Aurora Colorado, can come while sitting in a movie theater. These are the new staples of fearful living.

When I was in sixth grade people were afraid of nuclear war. People were terrified. I was terrified. I remembered that terror last night when I watched the documentary
Man would unleash the destructive power of the demon locked within the very fabric of matter and plunge the world into the atomic age.
My sixth grade teacher Mr. Joe Smith, taught me about this demon within the walls of my classroom at Zellers Elementary School. He'd just come back from a workshop on teaching children about nuclear war. He put a map up on the board. Our school was ground zero. He drew circles around the school. The first circle represented the area that would be totally incinerated. Another circle represented total destruction. Some rubble might remain but every living thing would perish. The circles continued. Everything I knew was destroyed. Incinerated. Burned. Dead from radiation.

I had a vague notion about the people who had these terrible weapons pointed at my school. I didn't know why. Mr. Smith hadn't been taught to teach us about that. The cycle of fearing the other was passed on to me. No reason to know anything about the other (as then, of course, they would no longer be the other).

I was terrified. Maybe for the first time in my life.

I did something when I got home. I went home and sent away for a list of addresses of potential pen pals. I wanted to learn about those people who had weapons pointed at my school. I also sent away for information from organizations like SANE and FREEZE. I was far too young to actually volunteer to do anything, but I felt like I needed to do something. These bombs were pointed at my school and going to burn me up. They were going to burn  my family up, and everyone else, too.

I did not fully understand why I took these steps. I hadn't really thought about any of this until today. Looking back, it was the beginning of my superpower as a psychologist--a superpower that I wouldn't fully understand until decades later when I was working on my doctoral degree.

It was all there when I was sitting in my sixth grade classroom. With a red circle of incineration drawn over my head, I was launched on a path toward learning about connection. There under the fear of nuclear incineration, I found the need to make the other part of me, and to let the other make me part of them.

Can you make yourself vulnerable enough to find yourself in the other?

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