Every Child a Teacher

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In a society beset by countless problems, the greatest dangers to children seem obvious enough: poverty, violence, neglect, disease, abuse, and countless other ills. Visible or invisible, suffered or only seen, these evils have always been there, and everyone agrees that they are terrible things. But what can any one of us do to overcome them? In a 1919 essay on the question of social renewal, Hermann Hesse suggests that the first step is to recognize its root cause: our lack of reverence for life.

All disrespect, all irreverence, all hard heartedness, all contempt is nothing else than killing. And it is possible to kill not only what is in the present, but also that which is in the future. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a child or young person. Life is waiting everywhere, flowering everywhere, but we only see a small part of it and trample much of it with our feet...

In identifying irreverence as a power that kills life, Hesse touches on something that endangers children more than anything else in the world today. Irreverence for children pervades almost everything in our culture, including our speech. It is there in the flippant way in which we refer to them as "stinkers" and "little devils," in the sarcasm that allows us to laugh at their expense, in the disdain we have for their feelings when we discuss their shortcomings in front of them (or behind their backs). It is there, too, in our habit of categorizing them: in the way we gloat over one child and sigh over the next - even in the way we unthinkingly call out-of-wedlock children "illegitimate." And words are the least of it.

As the chief symptom of lovelessness, irreverence is a significant cause of every social ill mentioned in this book - and if that sounds like an exaggeration, one need only look at a widespread ill such as divorce for confirmation. With reverence, the mindset that makes it "acceptable" would never be tolerated. Ari, a friend at Columbia University, writes:

To my mind, divorce is a deplorable breach of contract, and I say without humor that children should be allowed to sue. Consider the facts: Two people agree to create a human being and promise to give it love, a home, security, and happiness. They take this step with the best of intentions, to be sure, but then something goes awry. They find they really hate each other or for some other reason cannot live together. But in separating, they put themselves first and forget about the contract they have with their child. I do not believe, as you often hear soon-to-be-divorced parents say, that the separation will be "best for the child." My experience has taught me better.

But didn't my parents spare me an unhappy home where fighting and angry confrontations were the mode of communication? I believe not. I believe that they - as incompatible as they were and remain today - could have learned to stop shouting or slamming doors. At least they could have learned all that more easily than I learned to be a child of divorce.

With divorce so common these days, mine is not a popular position. Some - usually divorced people with children - accuse me of being selfish. But it's not just me. Someday they will hear it from their own children. A lost childhood cannot be recaptured.

Harsh as it seems, Ari's proposal is mild compared to what Jesus suggests for those who rob children of their childhood: "If anyone causes one of these to stumble, it would be better for him to be weighted with a millstone and cast into the sea." Even these words are understandable, however, in light of the spirit of reverence - the spirit that welcomes children and opposes at all costs everything that despises and rejects them.

Reverence is more than just love. It includes appreciation for the qualities children possess (which we ourselves have lost), readiness to rediscover their value and the humility to learn from them. Reverence is the willingness to accept childhood for its own sake, and children for who they really are. It is, as Mumia Abu-Jamal writes, the recognition that they "show us with their innocence and clarity the very face of God in human form, by which I simply mean that they mirror the greatest good we can conceive of...Don't you feel that when you look into the face of a child?"

Reverence is trust, too, as we see in the Jewish midrash which says that when God was bargaining with the people of Israel he refused to give them the Torah until they could guarantee its safekeeping. First they offered God their eldest, but he held them insufficient. Then they offered him their prophets, but he held them insufficient too. Only when they offered God their children did he give in: "They are certainly good guarantors. For their sake I give you the Torah."

Finally, reverence is an attitude of deep respect, as expressed by the following words of my grandfather:

It is children who lead us to the truth. We are not worthy to educate even one of them. Our lips are unclean; our dedication is not wholehearted. Our truthfulness is partial; our love divided. Our kindness is not without motives. We ourselves are not yet free of lovelessness, possessiveness, and selfishness. Only wise men and saints - only those who stand as children before God - are really fit to live and work with children.

Few of us count ourselves wise men or saints. Yet that is exactly why the basis of education must not only be knowledge and understanding, but reverence as well. What is vital here is that the heart of a man is touched by a spirit our age has completely lost. When faced with innocence and vulnerability, honesty and spontaneity, the only fitting response is reverence.

The idea of the child as teacher, though not an uncommon one, always deserves rediscovery. It is the logical consequence of a reverent approach to children. But when the child is hindered or disabled, it takes on special significance. Hence the inclusion of these thoughts from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a close friend and fellow peace activist who is also the father of a remarkable woman:

Ronda was our first child and an astonishingly beautiful baby. Her first year seemed normal to us and to her pediatrician. Before Ronda was two, however, we began a long hegira through the medical establishment seeking a diagnosis and prescription for Ronda's slowness to talk. We journeyed for several years to see different specialists where Ronda was subject to all kinds of testing. Often, diagnoses were diametrically opposed. (Further observation and testing disclosed some retardation and mild epilepsy.)

As Ronda approached school age, we were anxious to provide her with the best opportunity available for schooling. Public schools and private institutions were not able to offer any help. Institutions that provided education for deaf people were not able to deal with multiple handicaps...

There have been many problems over the years in and out of various treatment facilities. It has meant a lot of adjusting for Ronda and for us. But through it all Ronda has always been energetic and has learned steadily, if not easily. She has developed a vocabulary of several thousand words. She can write short, simple letters. Her sign language is almost too fast for the human eye. She gives her mother poor grades for sign language and considers her father a dunce. She herself has an incredible memory...

We have long since stopped worrying about why Ronda cannot hear or understand as we do and simply wonder at her wisdom, goodness, and the joy she brings.

Entering the conference room in the modest suite where Ramsey practices law, the first person you may see is Ronda at the table, crayon in hand. It is a startling and beautiful scene, unlike anything I've seen in any other office in New York. Ramsey explains:

She is not only good company, but a source of constant surprise. She enjoys any task at any time and is always ready to come or go. Above all, Ronda is our teacher. Through her we have learned what is really important in life: being together and helping each other, the beauty of gentleness and patience, the futility of material things, the absurdity of fame and personal credit, and the harm that comes from selfishness. Our daughter has taught us the essential role of love in any worthwhile life.

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