Sunday, April 15, 2007

Knowing Ourselves

But cruel are the times when we are traitors and do not know ourselves, when we hold rumor from what we fear, yet know not what we fear, but float upon a wild and violent sea, each way and none.

--Shakespeare, Macbeth 4.2.18-22

Last week high school where I teach had a security threat–a Friday, the 13th thing. Having followed the graffiti-delivered threat and subsequent rumors grinding from the mill for some time now, at the end of the day Thursday, school officials announced the threat in a letter to parents. The administration would take precautions of securing the buildings and so forth, but school would be held as scheduled. Well done, indeed.

On Friday, what learning could be had was got without incident, other than two-thirds of the students were not in class.

A retired detective and school security director once told me that there are three responses to danger given to human beings: fight, flee, or freeze. I suspect these all come from another F word: fear. I’m not sure what accounts for all the fear nowadays. In the years following 9/11 it’s easy to scapegoat the government and the media for a climate of fear, and of course these estates have much to do with American perception, but I think we must look at the motes in our own eyes as well. According to a Harris Poll, teens today are somewhat more afraid and 49% think a terrorist event is likely to occur near them than teens were in November 2001 (42%).

Personally, I’m more worried about the worry. My seniors were in 7th Grade when the World Trade Center was felled. What have we been teaching, have they been learning, since? It seems for all American’s flag waving nationalism and bumper sticker self-righteousness when it comes down to there is a lot of us that is likely to flee or freeze when faced with an actual danger.

Freedom is not for the feint at heart. How much a land of the free and home of the brave are we if we shrink from a scrawled message on a bathroom wall. I agree with our opening the school Friday to all who would attend.

It reminds me of taking a airplane trip in November 2001, my first since 9/11. Perhaps it took a little courage, but by far it was the most encouraging thing I could do at the time. The way to fight terrorism–whether from abroad or from home or from school–is to face it. To shrink from it is to "hold rumor from what we fear and know not what we fear," and thus, to let terrorism win and leave us to "float upon a wild and violent sea, each way and none."

I don’t blame my students who stayed home on Friday the 13th–some were scared, some had parents who were nervous, and some saw a chance to play hooky–I do fret, though, about what lessons about fear we teach each other and ourselves by not showing up. In my experience, when matched against freedom, knowledge, and love, fear, ignorance, and hate lose in the end.

As a world literature teacher, I strive to teach about courage and freedom and to provide knowledge and love of other cultures. But to quote another line from the scene noted above, "I remember now I am of this earthly world where to do harm is often laudable and to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly." It can be difficult nowadays to separate news stories from one’s own life, especially if you are a student living in one place most of your life and finding out about the world largely from others. I understand that.

I think, also, that in order for courage and freedom of a society to have meaning they need start with the individual. Sometimes it may seem as if we are deciding between our survival as an individual and survival of a civilization. Yet, could it be that they are one.

Image credit: Microsoft Office XP Standard for Students and Teachers. Media Content. Microsoft Corporation, 2001.

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