Imagination

In Ms. Andrea’s 5th grade class, students are reading Home of the Brave, the story of a Sudanese boy who comes to Minnesota after he watches his father and brother die at the hands of government soldiers.  The writing is simple and gorgeous, told in Kek’s voice.  I take Ms. Andrea’s copy home Tuesday and read it in one sitting, turning pages stabbed with post-it flags where she will point something out as she reads it to the class.  One flag says “Write long”, and I am in the room when she leads them through this, inviting them to make their own connections to Kek’s musings as he sleeps in his aunt’s midwestern apartment.

‘You and I will sleep in the other room.  We’ll take turns on the sofa. You know you are welcome here,’ Ganwar says, but I cannot tell if he means his words.   It’s a strange pain to be with those you belong to, and feel you don’t belong.

The children share their own ideas—round-faced David talks about sometimes being chosen last for a sports team, Rachel observes that, “When there’s a new baby in the house, you don’t get as much attention.” Malaya’s journal is blank.  She says, “I don’t know.”  Day after day, I will use Home of the Brave to help her learn to make connections, to imagine, to bring her own mind towards the mind of someone else.   

Historically, we believed that children on the autism spectrum were simply, definitionally, incapable of making such inferential leaps; they were seen as inherently and always lacking in what psychologists label a ‘theory of mind.’  I love the words of Kamran Nazeer, the pen name for a man who was educated in a school for children with autism, expressing the firm belief that this idea is wrong.

…autistic children aren’t unique in lacking a theory of mind.  Everyone lacks a theory of mind to begin with…Everyone needs to learn to read other minds….Looking back on it, this was the major premise in the proposition that our school was running.  The teachers didn’t believe that we lacked the ability to understand the possibility of or content of other minds, only that we needed to develop it, as all children do, and that, for us, that process was going to be harder, deliver later results, and we were going to require more guidance.

More guidance.  I pull Malaya and a classmate with similar challenges for ten minutes, every day that Home of the Brave is read aloud in class.  We work, painstakingly, to get past “I don’t know” and towards “Maybe I wonder”.  Malaya’s character maps start out stark and simple, with everyone initially described as simply ‘nice’.  Ganwar the embittered teenager with his missing left hand, Hannah the open-hearted foster child who has her own stories of loss,  Dave the aid worker, Kek’s sad-eyed aunt Nyatal. As students move through the grades, narrative fiction becomes increasingly real in its characters and plots: there are no bad guys depicted here.  Everyone is, truly, more or less ‘nice’, but there are shades of meaning and pathos and depth beneath that surface, revealed in gestures as small as the aid worker looking at his shoes, as large as Kek suddenly weeping in a midwestern supermarket.  The author never directly connects his outburst with the story he tells next, about watching a sick baby die in the camp; when we get to that part, I will make it explicit.  There’s more than enough for us here; there’s more food in a supermarket than Kek ever thought he’d see.  Where Kek came from, there wasn’t enough.  People died because of that, and Kek cries because he remembers that.  He cries because the dead people didn’t have this food.

I show Malaya photos of the Sudanese refugee camps, to help her understand the extent of what Kek has experienced.   I  show her photos of a Nuer family, with the children smiling in their parents’ arms, initially because I don’t want her to think of Africa as a place of mere desolation.  I realize, seeing the picture as I project it for her, that this is actually more heartbreaking than seeing just the camps, because if she’s able to connect things, she will realize that families just like that one have been severed by violence—that if this was Kek’s family, two would be killed.  She doesn’t connect it.  I don’t force the issue.

Malaya’s fundamental problem is that she imagines too little.  And I see that playing out for me in heartbreaking ways, with the refugee crisis at boiling point in Europe.  A picture goes viral on social media: the drowned body of a Syrian toddler with neatly fastened shoes.  For months, spoken and written pleas for action have met with little response; today every word that has been summoned to spark the world’s consciousness stands off to the side of this one damning photo, and everyone is looking. If describing isn’t enough, you can use visual aids.

My students disengage because they’re imagining too little.  And, while I know it’s an oversimplification of a heartbreakingly complex topic, I think there is a bit of that happening outside the classroom, in the places where decisions are made that led, directly and indirectly, to the children on the beach and the families at the train stations and the walls being built to turn them away.   A weak imagination can shield us, too effectively, from the suffering of others we don’t understand, as when the Slovakian government recently, grudgingly, offered to take in 200 Syrian migrants–as long as they could hand-pick the Christians.  A strong imagination can move us to act, like the Icelanders who countered their government’s proposal of 50 slots for refugees with specific ideas to increase the support. “I would like to help: I have clothing, kitchenware, bed and a room in Hvanneyri, which I am happy to share with Syrians.”  As humans, we learn, and we can act on our learning;  in the days immediately after the publication of the photo, an online petition to UK Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the crisis went from 40,000 signatures to over 300,000.

But there is also the opposite problem, of imagining too much.  I see a twisted version of that in the lurid headlines of British tabloids, decrying the flood of suffering humanity as a “swarm” of potential terrorists.   I see it in the hyperbolic vitriol of human hairpiece  serious Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who states that immigration is “killing our country” by flooding it with rapists.  And I struggle myself with another excess of imagination, that makes me turn away from the photos because I cannot.stop.seeing.them, that makes me disengage from the pain because I feel it too intensely.   “I unfollowed Daniel’s feed today”, my friend tells me, speaking of a mutual friend who uses social media to spread his concerns about multiple key issues, both at home and abroad.  I respond quite sincerely that a part of me thinks it’s better to unfollow the whole Internet.

Imagination is dangerous, both in scarcity and excess.  And it is never enough, to merely imagine.  Sometimes, when I look at the tasks in front of me as one person and one teacher, and then I look past myself to the tasks in front of all of us in this interconnected and deeply broken world, it feels like nothing will ever be enough.  Nothing can be enough, because everything’s too much.  Kek, who has climbed up into a tree in a Minnesota farm field for reasons I’ll need to explain simply to Malaya, expresses a pain that is his in its particulars, but universal in its reach.  I sigh.  There are too many hard things.

But like Kek, like the Icelanders, and tragically, like the Turkish police officer who cradled Aylan Kurdi’s small body and brought it in from the sea, we are all able to start with small, tangible actions.  Home of the Brave ends with an epilogue reuniting Kek with his mother “15 months later”, but the climatic point of the story is when he and Hannah bring a decrepit old cow to a petting zoo, unasked, because a neighbor has to sell the deed to her farm. He has named the cow Gol, from the Nuer word for “family”; the local police, called to deal with the issue of a cow on the freeway, escort them to the ticket booth and help convince the employees that Gol should be let in.  Hannah kisses Gol and Ganwar pats her flank and I stroke her neck and whisper in her ear and then off she goes to her new land to begin again.  Even the smallest act can have a significance that goes beyond itself.

Today, there are children beyond everyone’s help.  But there is still something to be done, everywhere and always, for our own sense of humanity and for the children that remain.  I make a small donation to an organization that helps refugees and others in conflict zones.  And I continue working with Malaya and others–students, teachers, families, peers–trying to build their understandings of people whose realities differ greatly from their own. Teaching others to imagine.  And imagining, myself.

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