By Eleanor Pershing
As I scraped the last of the rice-krispy treat batter from the mixing bowl to the pan, I heard a flurry of hesitant movement to my left. I looked up, and spotted a tentative teenager hovering near the door. She was one of the three High School counselors I had left downstairs in charge of 15 summer camp children while I went to make a surprise treat for the campers. When I had left the playroom 10 minutes previously, all had been calm, with the children contentedly doing arts and crafts and playing games. I had told the counselors that I would only be upstairs for 15 minutes, but that they should come find me if they needed me.
As I took in the form of the young counselor approaching me I felt a sinking feeling in my
stomach. What could the kids have possibly gotten up to in the last 10 minutes?
“What’s going on?” I asked, “is everything okay?”
The response was not a reassuring one.
“Um… I think you’d better come downstairs. One of the kids made this…”
From behind her back she pulled the unmistakable form of a weapon. It was almost comical to see what could most closely be described as a prison shank crafted from colorful Popsicle sticks, cotton balls, scotch tape, and rubber bands. The ends of the Popsicle sticks had been sharpened to points, and the cotton balls provided padding for the wielder to have a more comfortable grip.
As I took the weapon into my hands and turned it over I felt an inner sense of shock. My
shock shifted to disbelief as the High School counselor informed me which camper had
been the mastermind behind the weapon’s creation.
Jane! The sweet 7-year- old who loved arts and crafts and who had recently learned how to punt a soccer ball. Jane— whose colorful artwork depicting sunsets, zoo animals, and
flowers, covered the walls of the playroom. Jane— who enjoyed spending time rescuing
small bugs from the playroom and bringing them out into the garden.
My stomach felt hollow as I followed the counselor back downstairs to discover what on
earth could have possessed a child with no violent tendencies that I had ever seen to create something whose purpose was so obviously to cause harm to another.
As I reached the playroom, I spotted Jane immediately. She was crouched under a table in the corner with tears silently streaming down her face. Everything else in the room seemed completely normal. The other children were all coloring, doing puzzles, and playing board games.
I knelt down beside Jane’s huddled figure and asked if she would come with me out into the hallway. She nodded, and meekly followed me with her head bent low and her hair
shielding her face.
When we got outside, I lifted the offending object up for her inspection.
“Did you make this?” I asked. She nodded. And I watched as her eyes welled up with a
renewed set of tears.
“What is it?” I asked, hoping she would somehow surprise me with her answer.
“It’s a weapon.” she responded, hiccupping.
Though my heart skipped a beat upon hearing her small, innocent-sounding voice admit
that she had intentionally crafted such a thing, I kept my own voice level as I proceeded
with my line of questioning.
“Why did you make it? Did you intend to use it?”
Suddenly, her eyes hardened and her shoulders stiffened. Though I had been expecting a
continuation of her quiet crying, hiccupping, and quavering answers, her voice came out
more strongly and more defiantly than I had ever heard it.
“But… why?” I asked, still trying to maintain composure.
She paused for a moment, looking at her feet. And then it all came tumbling out in a rush; “I
made it because I wanted to use it on them. I made it because I wanted to hurt them.”
She looked up at me with an intense anger in her big brown eyes. “I made it because they
said I couldn’t play with them cause I wasn’t born in this country.”
With that, her tiny body was wracked with heavy sobs and she flung herself into my arms.
I held her as her tears stained my shirt, too numb to say anything for a moment.
The harsh realities of the outside world had managed to penetrate the walls of a summer
camp playroom full of 7 and 8 year olds. Children were making xenophobic comments and assigning rank to one another based on nothing more than learned hatred. In response, a retaliatory weapon had been crafted, with the intent to return some of the sting that had been brought on by the terribly exclusionary words.
Children are not born with such prejudice or with such notions of violence. The idea that
someone is worth less because of who they are is learned. It is taught. To understand the
world around us, we need only look at the children in our midst. What messages have the adults in their lives been passing on to them?
We are teaching them that anyone who is different is inferior. We are teaching them that
violence is the only solution to our problems. They are witnessing our prejudice, and
internalizing the message that some people are simply better than others. They are
witnessing rampant injustice that reaches into all corners of life, and seeing violent
retaliation as the only way to soothe some of the pain of that injustice. They are coming to understand that this cycle of hatred and violence is a normal part of human existence.
Through the eyes of children, our society’s flaws are laid bare.
Through the eyes of children, our understanding of the necessity of urgent change comes
into sharp focus.
It is up to us to create that change. It is up to us to determine what is seen through the eyes of children.