I’ve been nostalgic lately, and have been thinking a lot about my favorite stories and books from my elementary school days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One story I particularly remember from my time as a 4th grader was about a teacher who had in her class a girl from a very run down neighborhood. If I remember correctly, the girl had very dirty, shabby clothes, so the teacher gave her either a bar of soap or a new pinafore, I forget which. The child, inspired by the teacher, went home and cleaned herself up. Her family members, seeing her look clean, were impressed, and they too began to wash themselves and wear nice clothes. Looking and smelling as good as they did, her parents realized that their house was dirty, so they cleaned it. Then they painted it — inside. With the inside immaculate, they were embarrassed by the exterior, so they cleaned and painted that too. The neighbors, impressed by this single shiny house in the neighborhood, decided that they, too, wanted to live that way. And so, because of a bar of soap (or a pinafore), an entire community was transformed. I just loved that story.
Other books I vividly remember were the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, which first made me aware of the wonders of our modern civilization and the extraordinary courage of our pioneer ancestors. (Well, my ancestors weren’t exactly pioneers, living either in the shtetls or grand houses of Europe, but I’m talking our collective American ancestors.) I also recall a marvelous book about a young woman in Colonial America who was kidnapped by Indians. It was not a politically correct book, but I happen to know, now, that it was based upon an actual memoir written by a young woman in Colonial America who was, in fact, kidnapped by Indians. In other words, it wasn’t PC, but it was factually accurate. As for me, I didn’t take away any negative lessons about Indians en masse. I was simply impressed by the young woman’s courage and fortitude.
Another story that’s lived with me was one about a soldier in a fox hole somewhere in the Pacific. With bullets whizzing overhead, he discovered that he was sharing his fox hole with a poisonous snake, which promptly bit him. The story told about his desperate fight for survival, as he put a tourniquet on the wound and tried to outlast the poison. He did survive (of course, since the story was told in the first person), but the last line informed us, the riveted 4th grade readers, that he still had a hole the size of a teacup in his thigh.
In other words, the stories I remember reading as a child were outward looking. They were about grand adventures, and heroism, and courage, and good and evil, and moral obligations. They took me outside of myself. My peers, when pressed, remember similar stories.
And what all of us have noticed, but only I remark upon, is the fact that so many of the stories our children read in their schools are what I call navel-gazing stories. They’re about kids who are bullied at school, or who have an eating disorder, or who have an alcoholic parent, or who are shy, or any number of other Oprah-esque scenarios of somebody’s personal soap opera. The child protagonist always triumphs in the end, whether that means s/he tuns the table on the bullies, eats healthy food, forces the alcoholic parent into a rehab facility, or makes a big speech, but I don’t see my kids feeling inspired.
There’s nothing big in these books. They’re about ordinary people with problems. Ho-hum. Neighborhoods aren’t changing, frontiers aren’t opening, external forces (war, snakes, Indians) aren’t requiring people to act with fortitude.
Even Anne Frank, the perennial Holocaust book, isn’t outward looking. It is, instead, a remarkably claustrophic book about people who are not coping with the Holocaust, but are struggling to cope with each other. I don’t mean to insult the book. I truly think it’s one of the great masterpeices of adolescent writing, and one of the great works of the Holocaust. Nor do I mean to denigrate the suffering of those in the Secret Annex, only one of whom survived the war. And I really weep every time I think of the appalling suffering that accompanied Anne’s death. Although the children’s versions of the book tend to have Anne dying peacefully of typhus, she didn’t. Anne died alone, with her dad having vanished, and her mother and sister having preceded her to death. It was winter, she was starved, she had no clothes, and typhus is not a lovely disease from which to die. But they don’t tell that to the children. As taught, there’s nothing epic about Anne’s suffering and ending. It’s all about getting along with people in the attic. (For my one other, very big, problem with the message from Anne Frank’s book, go here.)
The books are children read tell them morality is dictated by feelings. If it makes the adolescent narrator or protagonist unhappy, it’s bad. And yes, eating disorders, and drinking problems, and bullying are bad, but these are details. They’re not about the larger scope, the bigger pictures. The kids don’t look at epic struggles, whether physical, as in war, or moral. Everything is just another soap opera in the lives of the citizens of a pampered nation.
I’m sorry for my kids, and I’m not surprised that they grumble a lot about the stuff they have to read. All that navel gazing can get mighty dull.