When the World Trade Center buildings collapsed into dust and ash, my firstborn was just under four years old: much too young to hear about terrorism, death, ruin. On September 12th I sent him off to preschool with all confidence that his teachers felt as I did. That confidence turned out to be well founded. But as it happened, some preschoolers had learned, inadvertently or not, about the fall of the twin towers. And a boy who knew that we had just visited my mother in New York City walked up to my son and asked (I imagine matter-of-factly) whether his grandmother, my mother, had been killed when the plane flew into her building.
Of course my son came home crying. And though I was able to reassure him that his grandmother was safe (we even talked to her on the telephone, as proof), I was forced into telling him something about September 11th. I kept my explanation brief and sketchy, but even so my child’s eyes widened in shock and dismay. I remember that as a day when the curtain of child-like innocence opened a sliver to allow a stagehand to pass through. Later the curtain would be opened to let the human show begin.
I also remember being furious at the boy who scared my son, and at the boy’s family, too. Irrational anger, I realized, but I had wanted to protect my son for longer than three years and eleven months of his life.
Now that same child is a news junkie. He watches the MSNBC lineup nearly nightly. He is as well-informed about current events as many of my adult friends. Last night we watched Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. As he does most other information, my kid soaked it up. When an executive at Lockheed — which maintains a plant in Littleton, CO, also home to Columbine High School — tried to argue that its weapons were used only to defend the United States against foreign aggressors, Moore inserted a slide show of images, graphic and disturbing, of the violence spawned by the dictatorships America has repeatedly supported or installed. A soldier defending one or another regime shot one man, and then another, in the head at point-blank range, and the bodies jerked forward responsively, like puppets. Dead bodies were heaped in piles in Nicaragua, in Vietnam, in Germany.
I could not contain a tiny yelp, my maternal instinct to rush over and cover my boy’s eyes. But he is nearly fifteen years old. So instead I looked toward him to gauge his reaction to the news footage. I don’t know whether I wanted him to be dry-eyed and stoic, or sobbing. I do know that I wanted to rewind the clip, to take it back and fold it into myself, away from him. He met my gaze, and said, wryly, “They don’t teach this in the history books.”
He’s not a child anymore. Not quite an adult, either, but getting closer all the time. My wanting to shield his three-year-old self from September 11th was appropriate, but I’m beginning to understand that at this point I would do him a grave disservice by sheltering him from, well, everything. All of it. Jerry Sandusky and serial killers and all the other terrible, awful things that are out there. As long as he’s able to perceive the good in us — and there’s so much of that, too — he can’t fully grow up unless he knows the bad.
More, how would he fight and hope to conquer an enemy he never even knew existed? As much as it pains me, I want my children not only to see the world as a place worth preserving but also as a place that too often needs lots of help being preserved.
My son is going to be a fighter, and I won’t be able to stop him. I don’t want to stop him.