“One Asian, under God, in the vestibule”: Empathy from a Young American

Over the last eighteen months I haven’t said anything overtly political on social media or reacted to political rants. I have liked an Op-Ed here and there and shared a Bernie Sanders Dank Meme, but that was the extent. I am naturally optimistic. I spent the last eighteen months convinced that there would be a pleasant outcome. On Wednesday morning, about 1:30am, I found myself sobbing in bed with my roommate. It had been a tense and ugly day. Reality had hit and I was completely unprepared for the results. I tried to go to bed with a tiny hope. I got up, unrested, without the tiny hope. What upsets me in the aftermath is not so much Clinton’s loss or Trump’s actual win, but rather the vacuum of sympathy and love that has sucked at us Americans for the last year and the fact that it isn’t going anywhere. All actual politics aside, I was crying because I didn’t understand what had happened to common human decency. We are treating each other hideously. I feel so much hurt and sadness for people around the country who I’d never met. For those who’d gone before us. I feel like we have somehow let “America” down. I have had a complex relationship with this country recently, but as a child I had a great empathy for the United States that was founded in historical fiction.

Last week I was reading Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson, a YA novel that is part of a trilogy about the Revolutionary War. It’s an ambitious trilogy from the author of Speak and Fever 1793. Reading a children’s book about the birth of our nation (particularly about the mistreatment of slaves), during such a dark week was a coincidence. But it reminded me how these books used to effect me, and I had to ask myself why I was afraid of letting Ashes touch me. I was lucky enough to read so many American stories in elementary school – stories that shaped my perception of the United States and left me feeling angry and inspired. There are all manner of studies showing us that children learn to sympathize with those different from themselves through reading and through play. As a kid I’d play everything from Native Captive to Jewish Girl Escaping Nazis. This sounds like cultural appropriation, but as a seven-year-old girl I was just working through what I was learning in history and in fiction. This sort of learning teaches children empathy and how to see beyond themselves. And I believe it raises children who fundamentally dislike everything Donald Trump stands for.

I was homeschooled. One of the best things my mother did was match our history topics with a long list of optional historical fiction. It wasn’t a mandatory school assignment, it was available americaif I wanted it. It was during these years that I read the books that shaped me into the American I am now. I think it is crucial that children understand war and high stakes. The United States did not emerge from the slime of the Dark Ages like many European countries. We were purposefully created with a set of goals. When I took my mandatory US History class in undergrad I was shocked at how little my classmates knew about our country. I do not remember so much about the birth of America because of my fifth grade textbooks, but because of the time-line historical fiction gave me. It is not textbooks but art like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton which will retain the story of our country and remind us of the inclusion that we want our country to strive towards. If anything the play is proof that you can be incredibly proud of your country’s origins and still aware of every atrocity of the time. (A civics lesson from a slaver; hey neighbor, your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor.) I didn’t have Hamilton growing up. Thankfully I had plenty of other hard-hitting stories to inspire me.

Esther Forbes’ Newbery winner Johnny Tremain was one of the first books I ever read about war. It planted that seed in me that says “war is bad.” Is also taught me that war can have purpose and it’s our job to decide if that purpose is worth it. Johnny Tremain is a coming of age story set during the siege of Boston. It’s long been one of my favorite books because it taught me what Textbook couldn’t – the high stakes of a Revolution. The livelihood, the family ties, the lives. It’s important to remember that the colonies were not supposed to win. Everything was against them and they did it anyway. Johnny Tremain teaches children that change is hard and slow but critical. When I first read it there were other aspects that drew me to the story – the romance, the delightful passages of food at the Afric Queen, the mystery of Johnny’s lineage. But it is the lessons it teaches about our nation which have stuck by me for the last fifteen or so years. On Wednesday I was thinking about one particular quote from Johnny Tremain, after seeing strangers break down in tears on the subway. “But when the bill came – the fiddler’s bill – that bill for the tea – it was so much heavier than anyone expected, Boston was thrown into a paroxysm of anger and despair.” I know the quote is speaking of a literal tax, but even within the context of the novel it has a broader meaning. It’s a despair and anger that sparked a conflict in Lexington and Concord which sparked a war. The despair I’ve seen in New York this week is not just because Clinton lost, but because we are all aware of a chasm in America that seems unbridgeable. I don’t see a civil war in our future but these stories about the foundation of our nation helps to soothe the restlessness and anxiety I am feeling.

america2As I got older and learned more about history I continued to lean on fiction for my understanding. I was so angry when I learned that almost 51,000 people died at Gettysburg. When I read Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt I cried. There is a pain found in Civil War stories that can not be ignored, a pain that has created in me an interest in the south. (If you want to read a really hard book, take a look at Brotherhood by Anne Westrick, a children’s novel about the birth of the Klu Klux Klan.) What bridges the Revolutionary War to the present is a sticky history. It’s been a never-ending fight by minorities and outsiders for inclusion. It is suffragettes and civil rights and two steps forward, one step back. Our founding fathers gave us a rocky foundation for an inclusionist society, but “all men are created equal” has continued to grow over the last few hundred years to include all men and women. We have been on an inspiring trajectory, though we still have far to go. “All are equal” has been America’s end goal, and fiction has taught me more about the fight for freedom and equality than any history class. One book that all homeschooled children have read is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor. It’s set in Mississippi during the Great Depression and it’s the story of a family’s struggle to keep their lives together in a world wrought with racism and social injustice. It’s a hard one to fully appreciate as a kid the first time you confront it. I was raised in New York, in a neighborhood that was 90% black. The racism and segregation of the early 20th century was so unreal and foreign to me. I got very angry reading books like Roll of Thunder, Bud not Buddy, and Amos Fortune, Free Man. But that anger is important for a child to feel. It grows the sympathies that an adult facing the racism of the 21st century so desperately needs.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a city full of immigrants. But for children who grow up in largely white neighborhoods or cities, I think stories about other cultures are even more vital for their growth. I love reading stories about other cultures and countries, but something about immigrant stories are special. It’s the culture clash. The first immigrant story I can remember reading is In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. This novel set in 1947 New York is an absolute classic among children’s literature. It’s the story of a young Chinese girl known as Sixth Cousin in her clan, who renames herself Shirley in America. Her parents leave China and the security of their clan for an engineering position in New York. Reading this book over the years was almost a spiritual experience. The first time I read it I didn’t really understand what was going on in 1947. I didn’t see the post-WWII world or understand the reasons why her family immigrated. I didn’t see all the beauty in the story of a young Chinese girl who finds a hero in the first African-American Major League baseball player. It’s a wonderful book to reread. Shirley starts piano lessons with her Hispanic neighbor, she babysits for an Irish family. I took the intercultural story for granted as a young New Yorker – though that didn’t make it any less meaningful or special to me. Shirley doesn’t speak English fluently, so she memorized the pledge as: “I pledge allegiance to the frog of the United States of America and to the wee public for witches hands, one Asian, under God, in the vestibule with little tea and just rice for all.” We had the book on tape, and I listened to it probably hundreds of times until the story and words were a piece of me. I learned about the Jade Rabbit (or Moon Rabbit) from The Year of the Boar. It might seem like a small thing, but I see the Rabbit every time I see the moon. A bit of Chinese folklore has become second nature to me because of a children’s book. It’s funny where exchange of culture can come from.

My mother always taught history chronologically, year to year. When the cycle ended we began again from the beginning. A lot of the historical fiction that I read went from medieval times such as Catherine Called Birdy, to pioneer times like The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. After the second world war it got quiet. I guess in 2000 there wasn’t a whole lot of historical fiction being written about 1950 onward, but I always found that time period confusing. How could something my mother lived through be in my history books? History was “past.” Richard Nixon was both past and sort of present. In 2006 Karen Cushman (also author of aforementioned novels in this paragraph) published The Loud Silence of Francine Green. I was fourteen when I read it. My mother assigned it to me as part of my modern history year in 8th grade. We reset in 9th back in antiquityamerica3.jpg – by which time I was no longer assigned historical fiction but rather original texts like excerpts of The Quran and The Epic of Gilgamesh. This was the year that I faced disillusionment. Previously I had been pretty equally horrified and inspired by history. It seemed long ago enough that I believed things were getting better. Even through 9/11 and Bush’s first term I felt optimistic about the American government. When I first learned about the Red Scare in the United States I was horrified. The Loud Silence of Francine Green is the story of the scare in the 50s, told through the eyes of a young girl in California. It’s more of a YA story, though thematically there isn’t anything actually inappropriate for younger audiences. It’s historical fiction that feels modern because it is – it’s a book that grapples with questions of —free speech, the atom bomb, the existence of God. It encourages young people to question their governments, to question their parents, to not be so passive. I think this was one of the last “children’s books” that I read as a “child.” I don’t just remember the book. I remember how it felt to read it. I remember the hours of conversation I had with my mother after, the hard questions I asked her as I fought to understand what had happened during the Red Scare and following Cold War. How could our free government be so unfair?

I forgot until I started writing this essay how invested I was in American history and government as a child. Once you’re out of school and distanced from the daily reminders of our past, it gets easy to forget where we came from and where we want to be headed. I think adults should be reading historical fiction too. We need to keep ourselves creative, questioning, sympathetic, and alert. I learned to love and worry for those different from me through fiction. I learned how to understand complex political divide through extensive Civil War novels. I tried to see things from every angle, without even realizing what I was doing. Children are also able to look at our past with more sympathy. I was able to connect to events and characters emotionally without any analysis. I was angry and forgiving at the same time. I have lost all that gentleness in my first few years of adulthood. I have lost so much empathy.

I think we need to look at our history and country again, with softer eyes and sadder hearts. This is our history. This is who we are. Children need to know this history and so do adults. We need to raise each other and remind each other of what our country has been through. This can be done through many mediums, but books are here for us too, to remind us to be kinder and gentler. More empathetic. More understanding. I am not necessarily afraid of the policies that Trump may or may not instate. I am heart-broken for a country that has been set back fifty years emotionally. I am amazed that people can vote for a man who has such sexist and racist rhetoric. I am worried for women, immigrants, and marginalized communities if this rhetoric becomes normalized again. Mostly I am saddened that so much of my nation was so desperate for “change” that they could accept a man like Trump. People are miserable – the 59,589,855 who voted for Trump out of anger, hurt, and fear and the 59,796,396 who voted for Hillary and have spent these last few day in mourning, worried about their friends and family in a country where the “acceptable” rhetoric is going backward. I feel like I’m missing something here. Something is happening that I don’t see. I want to be as desperate to understand what is going on in our country right now as I was as a child. And I want to approach it with the same broken, gentle heart.

We need fiction right now. We need stories more than we have in a long time. Reading is not only a form of escapism – it’s a way to learn, to hope, to challenge yourself and change your perspective. If you have a child please give them a challenging book this week. If you don’t have a child, try parenting yourself. Give yourself a really, really good book. I mentioned about a dozen titles here. They’re all short novels, easy for an adult to read in a day or two. Maybe they’ll break your heart a little more, to where it needs to be these next four years.

Sarah V Diehl


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