My son Milo started reading when he was three. Almost seven now, he reads everything and anything--with the exception, he explains, of "fiction." If it's not based upon something tangible in the world he's not interested, which makes him a strangely knowledgeable authority on things well beyond his years. Milo knows about many subjects, but like his father he's got a remarkable memory for dates, maps and events over the course of human history. And while he's still very much a seven-year-old, thus making historical context a little complicated for him, he can tell you with fair accuracy the major events of both the First and Second World Wars. He knows about shipwrecks, which ones went down when, what the differences in their destruction were, why the passenger liner Lusitania is suspected of carrying weapons destined for England (a second explosion in her hull after the Germans shot her--a suspiciously huge blast which sunk her in eighteen minutes).
Last week over waffles in Hawaii, Milo was reading a souvenir newspaper I bought him from Pearl Harbor, a tiny little grownup pouring over the tragedies of December 7, 1941 with the gravity of a concerned citizen. "It's so nice to see a kid reading the paper," a gentleman told my brother. "No-one reads the paper anymore."
My brother, not having kids of his own yet, readily recognized the perfect opportunity to brag. "That's nothing. Check this out." He turned to Milo. "Tell me about the mongoose."
Milo considered for a moment. "Well, they hunt during the day unlike the palm rats, which means they're not nocturnal. So they're diurnal. Yep. Diurnal. Also, they're invasive here in Hawaii."
The man just stared. "Okay, then!"
My brother laughed with pride when he told me the story.
This is what we have to deal with around these parts: a seven-year-old who is extremely seven-ish when it comes to his emotional maturity but can pull facts out of the clouds like rain. His insatiable quest for knowledge keeps us up long past his bedtime with his queries about historical events. Last night, in the dark, looking at the mottled shadows: "Tell me about the French Revolution."
The French Revolution isn't one of my stronger suits. I admitted to Milo that he really should ask Dad about it, but the short of it is this: people were sick to death of monarchs and took matters into their own hands to create a republic, but then everyone got a little carried away and started slaughtering people mercilessly from all quarters. Then a little short guy led the French army throughout Europe, taking over a great deal of it until they got to Russia, which by its very nature defeated Napoleon and his troops.
"That's the 1812 Overture," Milo said.
Good grief, I thought.
So you will understand when I explain that his head doesn't work within the realm of superheroes and sports figures. He works with historical heroes and villains, Nazis and Napoleon, U-boats and the Blitz, air raids and invasions on land and by sea. This is what he knows.
He drew a picture in class the other day on the back of his spelling test. In it two people in a fire truck drive up to a burning building, at the top of which is a tiny figure, apparently caught in the fire. One stick says to the other stick, pointing a little stick finger at the building, "That's a Nazi."
Which, if you know my kid, makes perfect sense.
But his teacher somewhat frantically pulled Lars aside to point it out. "I wanted to show this to you," she started. "I didn't even notice it at first, but some other parent saw it and was really upset by it."
Lars took a look at it. "It's what he knows," he said. "He knows about World War II and he knows who the Nazis are." She looked unmoved. "Our family is Jewish," he said, a strange sort of justification when you get down to it.
"It's just one of those things we need to be sensitive about," she said. But she was rattled and didn't know how to deal with it. She wanted it to go away.
After Lars explained the situation to me, we were at a loss. Milo hadn't condoned Nazism, nor written about how Adolph Hitler was a fine fellow with great ideas; he had drawn a picture with a Nazi in it. A stick Nazi. Had the words, "That's a Nazi" not been written, it would have been just another seven-year-old artwork exploring seven-year-old anxieties and thoughts about his seven-year-old world.
And we realized, both because we were getting defensive, but also because we were genuinely angry about it, that if Milo had written "That's a Turk," or "He's Pol Pot" or "That's Darth Vader," no-one would have thought twice about it.
Now we were placed in the unenviable position of explaining to Milo that his teacher was upset by something somewhat intangible. He hadn't espoused any belief in the Nazi philosophy, nor had he made reference to anything they had done, either in support or condemnation. He hadn't done anything wrong. We explained to Milo that we weren't mad, but that he couldn't talk about Nazis in school. "Why?" he asked, reasonably, I might add. If you can't talk about Nazis in school, where can you talk about them? Are schools for learning about everything except the Nazis? He'd written a solitary word, one based in a period of history he knows about, in a drawing. He'd written a word. "I can't believe my first grader is being censored!" Lars said, and while "censored" is a bit hyperbolic, I have to agree: this was much ado about nothing.
If the word "Nazi" still has the power to terrify in this knee-jerk way, it makes me extremely uncomfortable about where we're headed. If we can't talk about Nazis, we can't talk about what happened in World War II. And if Mark Twain's "niggers" are excised from Huckleberry Finn, we can't talk about slavery or the Civil War with any realism. If we're hair-trigger about certain buzzwords like "Nazi" and "nigger," even in their context while overlooking other historical atrocities, like Cortez storming the New World and Mao's "Cultural Revolution," we're whitewashing all of them, either by hysterical touchiness or willful ignorance.
Language is only as powerful as you're willing to make it. To de-fang Nazis, who still feature prominently in popular culture despite our first grade teacher's wish, we have to talk about what they did. Indiana Jones, made of video game LEGO's or celluloid, still fights them in front of thousands of children every day. Children are exposed to Nazis; if we can't explain why they're important, we've lost the struggle for making meaning out of the meaningless.
Because nothing was more meaningless than the Holocaust. If we cannot try to explore the senseless, meaningless horror of it because we can't write the word "Nazi," we're in a whole heap of trouble.