Children Will Listen: On Voldemort and Bin Ladin

When I heard the news on Facebook–“Osama Bin Ladin is dead”–I turned to Twitter while traditional media lagged behind the story. For over an hour, I waited for the President’s statement, reading tweet reactions and listening to a live stream from CBS. The tweets were raw–ranging from Hemmingway-esque bursts of “AP Confirmed: Bin Ladin is dead” to tweets dealing with the complex emotional reactions we were all having. Was it wrong to cheer the death of a man so focused on destroying innocent lives–who had taken so many American lives on 9/11 and was largely responsible for so many deaths of our soldiers? What was that feeling? Relief? Catharsis? Justice?

The experts and pundits chattered on in the background, dissecting the President’s yet-unmade speech, and speculating on what the news might mean. I knew what it meant to me.

I was a student teacher in 2001, hundreds of miles away from New York City in the Midwestern city of Evansville. September was test-time for my sophomore students and while they were sequestered in classrooms in a wing of the building that would not be disturbed by other students changing classes, my supervising teacher and I were shuffled off to the teacher work-room. I was grading my way through a pile of quizzes when another teacher came into the room and told us to turn on the television. A plane had hit one of the buildings in New York City.

I imagined a Cessna, a tiny bird, wildly off course–an unconscious pilot, a horrible accident, no doubt. When the image appeared on the screen, I felt my stomach harden. At that moment, live, we saw the second plane strike and knew our country was at war.

The rest of the day–spent on lockdown–is a blur. I remember students laughing at the idea of a plane flying into a building, stunned by their lack of understanding and compassion. I now understand they had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend the way the world had shifted under them. I saw and understood in a way they would come to know how the world would not be the same for them or for me anymore. On campus at the University of Evansville, our student newspaper lamented: “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see a world without our country at war.” We, on the cusp of our adult, professional lives knew it would be years and many more lives lost before our country would ever feel safe again. There was a profound sense among us that when those planes struck, our innocence died and was buried in the rubble.

Last night, too, was full of what some called “inappropriate” reactions to the announcement of Bin Ladin’s demise. The crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA” and celebrating as though we had won an Olympic victory. In scanning the faces of the crowd, I was struck with how young they were. If I, at 30, had lived one-third of my life with the War on Terror and I felt sober relief at the news, how must it feel to someone in their late teens or early twenties who had known war and the specter of Osama Bin Ladin for half of their lives or more. These young people have been steeped in the rhetoric of war and America’s righteous vengeance. They know the names of the enemies and who to fear. The whole story has been told and calcified into legend. Washington crossing the Delaware? Just as remote and iconic as the crumbling Twin Towers and President Bush with his bullhorn.

For the youngest Americans–the children who watched the adults around them react to 9/11 and the many years of being told who and what to fear–Osama Bin Ladin was a character in a story, not a real human being. He was the bogeyman, a symbol of evil, an unknown danger lurking somewhere in a country far away, the ultimate bad-guy from the cartoons. He had no humanity anymore–both because his actions were so heinous and because the man himself became a folk tale. On Twitter, I read: “Sure hope it wasn’t just one of [Bin Ladin’s] horcruxes.” For our students, and those young people celebrating and chanting, perhaps the Voldemort/Bin Ladin connection isn’t too far off. How else do we expect them to react to the news that the most evil villain of their childhood has been killed at last?

Young people celebrate outside the White House.

As we move forward and step into our classrooms to have more conversations about war, terror, good, evil, justice, and humanity, we must be careful how to speak and react with our students as the story takes shape. Stephen Sondheim knew the power of stories and warned through song in his musical Into the Woods: “Children Will Listen.” All we have are stories and the adult leaders we want will be shaped by what they see and hear as children.

“Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,
Not free.

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you see
And turn against you…

Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…

Guide them then step away
Children will glisten.
Temper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Children will listen.
Children will listen.

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