I was at my internship with my first-grade class the other day (because my life now apparently revolves around tiny people who haven’t yet grasped the concept of sarcasm), and I heard the teacher bring up an interesting topic.
“As you know class, Thanksgiving is coming up. So now we are going to learn about the Pilgrims and the Indians!” I then sat in a ridiculously small chair and listened to five whole minutes of some crap about love, kindness and caring. It probably would have lasted longer, but a 6-year-old’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s. When they went out to recess, I asked the teacher how she could sleep at night while perpetuating this heinous lie that conveniently left out any mention of slavery, smallpox-infested blankets and a basic genocide of a people – except I said it nicer and less accusatorily. Her answer was simple: When they’re that age, you just kind of give them a basic, sugar-coated idea about things and then you fill in the rest when they’re old enough to handle it.
This had me looking back on my own childhood. Wasn’t everything so much nicer when I had no clue what the world was really like? At a time when race wasn’t a solid concept, I had no idea how people in developing countries lived (or even how some people in my own country lived) and the term “politically correct” wasn’t part of my vocabulary? It seems ridiculous now to think that there was actually a period in my life when I wasn’t fully aware of the problems and true evilness that exist in our world. The evidence is everywhere: we learn about it in our classes, we see it on television and in popular culture and it even exists in our daily lives. Now I see how parents can pray that their children stay children so they don’t have to face the pain of the adult world.
I remember a simpler time when I was able to do things like watch Disney movies and actually enjoy them instead of analyzing them based on our country’s prejudices at the time they were made. Aladdin is forever ruined for me. I can’t watch it anymore without thinking of the blatant racism in several songs and scenes. And it’s too bad, because Aladdin was the dreamiest of all the Disney princes. Pocahontas is another one. I once read an article in which the author said that the use of the word “savage” in reference to Native Americans is equivalent to the use of the N-word for African Americans. Can you imagine a song with that hateful title and a movie made in which cartoon characters repeatedly use it, sometimes while singing and dancing? Now go back and watch Pocahontas again. I’ll refrain from talking about Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp before I officially ruin every Disney movie for you.
It’s true what they say, “Ignorance is bliss.” The only problem with this statement is that you don’t realize when you’re ignorant, so you don’t know to enjoy it before everything becomes 10 million times worse because someone clues you in on the true cruelty of the world. But it must still be nicer than being aware of what’s really going on – genocide, prejudice, murder, starvation, melting icecaps, war, Britney Spears.
But the ethical question remains: should we be lied to, even at such a young age? Don’t these first-graders deserve some minute semblance of the truth, even if it isn’t the happiest thing in the world? I was debating this conundrum in my head when one of my favorite students came up to me and tugged on my hand. She had tears in her eyes because her “friends” wouldn’t let her play on the monkey bars with them. Her pain and sadness was almost too much to bear. At that moment, I decided that she had enough on her plate and the truth could wait for another day.
DANIELLE RAMIREZ wants to know if you would rather be ignorant or unhappy. E-mail her and let her know at email@example.com.