On Imagination, A Tool for Survival

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, early educators across the country continue to be bombarded by the questions and fears of our youngest students.  Emily Kaplan takes us back to her own childhood and youth, infused by the experiences and wisdom of her grandmother, who worked in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1945.


Kaplan is an elementary school teacher who has taught in suburban, charter, public, and private schools in greater Boston and rural Guatemala.  Her writing focuses on children, education, and social equity.  This piece originally appeared at her blog at Defending the Early Years.


By Emily Kaplan

When I was a little girl, I didn’t believe in snow.

Growing up Jewish in California, I believed that snow was like Santa Claus: a sentimental fiction associated with a holiday I did not celebrate. What I hadn’t experienced myself could not be real; this is the terror and beauty of childhood.

As I got older, my grandmother, who worked in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1945, settling survivors whose entire families had been murdered, used to send me books about the Holocaust. I’d spend hours poring over photographs of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, studying the drawings of children who would never grow up, reading the diary entries of someone very much like me: a Jewish girl who loved to write.

My grandmother would tell me about the Germans she met after the war: good people, she said, who’d had Jewish colleagues and Jewish friends. Good Germans did not like Hitler or his supporters, but they’d hoped that it couldn’t really be as bad as some predicted.  And when it became worse than they’d imagined, Good Germans did not cooperate, but they did not resist. Good Germans followed the law and went to church on Sundays. Good Germans shielded their children, told them that they were safe, that everything would be okay— as parents everywhere, as teachers of young children, have always been inclined to do.

We cannot be Good Germans. This country has just elected a racist, xenophobic, sociopathic demagogue whose rhetoric and rise reminds scholars and survivors of Adolf Hitler, who was democratically elected to lead one of the most progressive, educated, and technologically advanced civilizations in the world.

In 2016, in the United States, we are in grievous peril, with signals of fascism rising by the day. The president-elect has appointed as his chief counsel a self-identified white supremacist; he has threatened to  limit freedom of the press; he intends to institute a national registry of Muslims.  In Trump’s America, some groups will be targeted first; others will have the privilege to dismiss their fears as overblown.

Now, at the height of our crisis, we must take powerful action— we must protest and defend and fight. And then, too, we must tenderly care for our future: the littlest and the most innocent among us.

Our children must understand that what it is to come under this administration is not normal, is not acceptable, and cannot be the baseline by which progress is measured. Our children must learn dissent as a native language, follow only those who’ve earned their trust, and never acquiesce solely because it’s easier for now. They must read history as a set of instructions, and know that those who believe that it will not repeat itself enable it to do exactly that. But to teach them to do all this in the face of what is to come— the specifics of which we cannot yet know— feels like our biggest challenge of all.

Children will believe, as children always do, that the only world they have ever known is the only world there is. The chasm between the present and an ideal world will be deeper and darker than it’s been in our lifetimes, and, at this moment, my terror is that I will not know where to find the tools to build the bridge across.

But I know, too, that our survival depends on handing our children these tools, on validating their hopes, on teaching them that their reality is both anomalous and able to be healed. Imagination, the specialty of children, is our most fundamental freedom. If it is destroyed, so goes our civilization.

This, then, is our task: to cultivate in our children the ability to cope without growing accustomed, to plant seeds for the future in a warped and barren present. For the next four years or more, our children must survive in the desert while learning to believe in snow.


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