Sue Clark: When books become prophecy
June 27, 2018
"They removed children from their parents with the goal of giving them a religious upbringing aligned with the new U.S. theocracy."
My students look at me incredulously, and one of them shoots up her hand, smirking.
"I don't think so," she says, now smirking and eye-rolling, a multi-tasking which only critical teens can master. "For one thing, Americans would not have allowed that government overthrow. People would have stopped them!"
"Which people?" I wonder.
I want to show the students these pictures without labels. I wonder if they can ascertain which was in 1942 and which is right now?
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I quote a line from another dystopian book: "The proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million."
The students shake their heads.
A boy adds, "Separation of church and state. It's in the Constitution." He nods as if it's settled.
As a group of older high school students, they give an overwhelming thumbs down to the dystopian novel we're reading: too many flashbacks, too difficult to follow the plot, protagonist is not likeable, too downtrodden and not a hero.
"She can't rebel. She has been crushed by the government and would be shot at the first sign of disagreement," I said, adding, "they had ignored the religious zealots for so long, the government coup just crept up on them." I pause, "They might just cut her hand off the first time, but the next they'd shoot her."
The class said they wanted superheroes and she was a wimp and the overthrow wouldn't happen.
"So you loved the book?" I ask, to much laughter.
A year later, I tell them that there is an award-winning TV series on this very book, and they eye-roll again. A former senior emails me that she'd been stunned to find that she had to read the book again in freshman English. The horror!
Meanwhile, in the younger class, we study a novel taking place during World War II. A young Chinese boy falls for a Japanese girl in Seattle, and then Pearl Harbor happens. She and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho.
One student, usually quite blasé and unemotional says, "This book is fiction, right? Did that really happen? Only 70 years ago?"
Another answers, "It was in Northern California in a camp called Manzanar. Close to us."
One of the boys taps on his laptop. "Here are some pictures of it," he says.
There are guards in towers, watching over barracks crowded with uprooted families. The mood of the place is dismal with rows of barracks overlooked by armed guards. They are just following orders.
Blasé Girl says, "I can't believe it. Not far from us. I want to see it."
"That will never happen again, though," declares one.
Other kids look doubtful.
We talk about other instances of children being removed from their homes. Between 1910 and 1970, Australian aboriginal children were removed from their families to be educated in schools where they were forced to give up their native language and learn English. The goal was to "civilize them." They were given a national apology in 2008.
"What about the Native Americans right here in our country?" asks a girl. "The government removed them, too, and put them in white boarding schools."
"And slavery," adds another. "Their kids got sold."
School is out, now, and current events are keeping me up at night this summer. As the grandmother of a small girl, my brain runs in a loop of her being pulled from my daughter's arms, how she would feel all alone in a camp without her mom and dad.
If I think about this too long I start crying.
My laptop brings up pictures of terrified immigrant children currently held in cages. The "holding facilities" look suspiciously familiar. I place these photos beside the Manzanar pictures.
Everything that happens is a lesson plan to me. I want to show the students these pictures without labels. I wonder if they can ascertain which was in 1942 and which is right now?
I am sorry they have to guess.
Sue Clark lives in Grass Valley.