The Children’s Story (1963)
James Clavell (1921-1994)
We pass down to our children the most important traditions and beliefs of our country through words and symbols which for us can be ripe with meaning and intention. But, asks James Clavell in his short tale The Children’s Story, what happens when we only teach our children to parrot the words and acknowledge the symbols, and we fail to take the time or make the effort to explain to them the significant of these revered words and symbols?
Clavell recalls, in the post-script to the story, his daughter coming home from her first day of school, standing in front of him, and blurting out The Pledge of Allegiance as quickly as she could. Successfully completing her recitation, she asks her father for a dime, saying that her teacher had told the class to learn it, and that if they did so successfully, their mom or dad would give them a dime. He gives her the hoped for money, but then begins asking her what some of the words in the pledge mean, only to discover that she has no idea --- the teacher has only taught the students to say it through, she has not explained its meaning. Reflecting on this moment, Clavell began asking others for their experiences as children, and found no one who had had the words of the pledge explained to them as children. His surprise and concern over this realization became the genesis of this short story.
The subtitle of the book is … but not just for children, and reading the book makes clear that it stands as a cautionary tale for parents and teachers. The action covers just 25 minutes at the beginning of a school day, taking place in a first or maybe second grade class. As the story opens, anxiety fills the classroom, the teacher afraid and the students picking up and reflecting back her fear. We soon learn that an unnamed foreign country has conquered the United State, and the teacher is soon replaced by a new teacher, “a beautifully young girl … [who] wore a lovely smile, and when she spoke, she spoke without the trace of an accent,” much to the anxious students surprise. Over the next few minutes this new teacher carefully, methodically overcomes the children’s mistrust and fear. With seeming ease, she subverts in the children’s minds the most sacred American symbols, symbols that were mere objects or memorized words for the children, and which carried no deep, clear meaning that might have given them pause before they, quite literally in one case, threw them out the window. >
Though it comes in at 98 pages, the story is spread out thinly through the pages, some of which are blank, some having only a few words or a sentence on them, this physical structure helping to pace the story. The layout adds to the tension, and, perhaps more importantly, helps convey the abrupt shifts in the children’s thoughts, as the teacher skillfully leads them to discard one not-well-understood symbol after another. Before reading the story it may seem implausible that it could be so easy to strip away these most fundamental symbols of American cultural in less than an hour; Clavell, however, presents a terrifyingly convincing demonstration of just how easy it could be.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf