My son, who is in middle school and attends the school where I teach, recently participated in the school district’s UIL One Act Play competition. Our school district has several middle schools, and students from all schools gathered on a Saturday in December to perform their plays. One school performed a play that tackled the difficult historical subject of Nazi Germany and the Hitler Youth. The student casts from all the schools did an amazing job, but the play about Hitler’s Youth and the extermination of not only Jews, but of Germans with disabilities, was one of the plays that won a place in the UIL competition. Although my son was disappointed his school’s play did not win, he had a great time and he conceded that the students from this winning cast performed the play well. Later, as I talked to some friends about the One Act Play competition, many expressed concern that middle school students were permitted to perform a play with such a controversial subject matter. I listened as these adults declared that they thought the drama teacher should not have been allowed to choose that particular play, that they would not have allowed their own child to perform if that play was chosen for their school, and that the subject matter was too dark, too mature, and too depressing for children that age. I have some other friends whose children were actually in the play in question, and as they posted proud pictures of their children on social media, they were met with comments from others that questioned the appropriateness of the play for middle school students, questioned the motivations of the drama teacher who directed the play, and even seemed to question the mothers’ parenting choices by allowing their kids to participate. The main consensus from the parents I spoke with about the play, and the ones commenting about the play on social media, seemed to be that learning about the horrific events Hitler instigated and endorsed would destroy the innocence of these middle school students and ruin their view that the world is a happy and safe place.
Middle school students, although they are not yet legal adults, are part of our communities, our country, and our world. Keeping these young people in the dark about what’s going on is not helpful, and in many cases is a moot point. The thing is, they already know. They have smart phones, they learn things in school, they watch the news, talk to their friends, eavesdrop on adults, or see it on social media. So protecting and sheltering them from the ugliness of the world, whether current or historical, doesn’t do anything except make adults feel better. The safest way for kids to learn about difficult topics is to read about them, talk about them, or even perform them. Literature is a safe way for students to confront these issues and to learn from the ways the characters or historical figures take action to promote change.
Speaking of promoting change, young people must be taught to recognize situations in which change is needed. If students are shielded from current or past injustices as an effort to maintain their perceived innocence, we also lose an opportunity to teach them to recognize injustices in their own world. While reading literature that addresses issues surrounding justice and equality increases empathy in kids, it’s not enough. Kids need to learn what to do with all that empathy they feel. Young people need to be more than just tender, considerate and tolerant. They need to be good citizens. As parents and teachers it’s our duty to instruct children on how to be good citizens, and we can do that by allowing kids to learn in multiple ways – reading, discussing, debating, performing. When kids read books, or perform plays, or discuss articles that deal with persecution, inequalities, or injustices that have been (or are being) done to certain groups of people, they are learning how being a good citizen can impact the lives of others and make lasting change that ensures the rights of our society are accessible to all. They learn that with rights come responsibilities. One responsibility we can inspire in our kids is to recognize inequalities and use their rights as citizens to seek justice.
Most adults, if asked, would probably say they want kids to grow up and be productive people who give back to their communities in some way. Allowing them to learn about events and issues that happen as a result of our less desirable human motivations – fear, greed, hate – is a step toward molding these young people into the good citizens adults want them to become. I want my students, and my own children, to know the truth about our world. And the truth is, it’s a wondrous place that still needs a lot of work. Dan Rather recently wrote, “It’s one thing to curse the darkness. It’s another thing to light a candle.” We curse the darkness when we shelter kids from the events of our world. Allowing and encouraging kids to learn, question, and discuss the issues that citizens in our country, in our world, and in our history have faced increases the likelihood that they will go out and make positive changes not only for themselves, but for all people. These kids are going to grow up. Every effort should be made to inform them, prepare them, and empower them to be citizens who actively work to make the world a better place.
So, let them debate current issues. Let them read the stories. Let them watch the news, discuss the articles, and make informed opinions.
Let them perform in the play.
Let them light their own candles, and watch as the darkness is eliminated, one flame at a time.