Teaching history can be tough, especially when the student is young. We question how much information to give and what type of information to provide, depending on the age or maturity of a particular student. "Experts" over the years have determined what details of various parts of history are appropriate for students through the years and have revised history books to reflect those "appropriate" aspects. But how do you broach painful subjects when your kids ask questions.
I have often thought that the Holocaust would be the most difficult part of history to cover with B and later with K. How do you explain that millions of men, women and children were slaughtered just because they were Jewish, like we are? How do you explain that hundreds of thoughts of other people, fellow countrymen and women, just stood by and watched those who were Jewish be packed away in cattle cars, never to return? How do you comprehend the enormity of 6 million?
Knowing how difficult the subject of the Holocaust will be to explain, I have often thought to leave that discussion for when B is older, and for now to generally avoid those "difficult" times in history. Perhaps easier to explain are those times well past, such as the American Revolution or even the Civil War, which can be sanitized to better explain to younger children. Despite hoping that those days of difficult explanation were still a ways off, we encountered another one today.
I was born in 1974, in the waning shadow of the Vietnam War. My sisters, born 1 and 2 years before me were also in the shadow of a conflict that almost tore our country apart. My father, a Marine, had served (I believe) two tours in Vietnam, before coming home to meet and marry my mom. I do not know much about his service to our country, other than that he did not like to talk about it. When the Vietnam War Memorial was completed in 1982, I remember my sister asking my Dad if we could go to Washington D.C. and see it. He said "no" and gave no reason. I recall her asking a follow up question and recall that his reaction was such that we never brought it up again.
Once when we were kids, he pulled out a box of slides and fashioned a screen of sorts with a white sheet. Not knowing what was in store, we curled up on the couch and took an all too brief walk with him down memory lane. There were not many details and the names and dates have all been all but lost with time. He never wrote anything down, and only this once let his guard down for the briefest moment to let us peer in.
After his death, we sometimes heard stories from friends or family of how troubled he was, or odd things that he did or said that made people wonder. We learned that shortly before he died, he was seeing a psychiatrist through his job, something that was almost unheard of at that time, in rural Ohio. The details of those visits also lost to time and the doctor-patient privilege. One relative told a story of finding Dad walking in the woods behind our house, talking to someone or something that was not even there. He never shared his combat or service experiences with us and we were left to wonder how those experiences shaped him. My own education about the Vietnam War is limited to what I learned in school, in those books that "experts" have drafted, and what I've read or heard from other sources. To say that it was a troubling time for those who lived through it would be a massive understatement.
A few years ago, Rob and I took a trip to Washington DC while B was at Cousin's Week. We had K with us, but she was about 10 months old and not likely to remember much of the trip. We found ourselves at the Wall and I couldn't help but wonder what my Dad would have thought of it. Would he see too many names that he knew, boys that had not made it home? Something else I will unfortunately never know.
Today we introduced B to this troubling time in history. The introduction was deliberate, in that we knew the Wall would be there and both Rob and I wanted to see it. B had heard about it as well and asked to be taken to see it. The Traveling Wall, an 80% size replica, is at our local mall for 4 days. Local Veterans groups helped bring it here and Boy Scout groups are participating in reading all of the names over the 4 day period. We struggled to explain this small piece of history to B. She asked questions, curious about its important and place in history and we tried to give as much information as we thought appropriate to an almost-8-year old little girl. Was the spirit of a grandfather she would never know walking there with us?
The questions were not about the conflict itself or about what led to the U.S involvement. She asked about the Wall itself and the names found on it. She asked about my Dad and how he came to be in the War. Unfortunately, there weren't many answers for her to those questions. As we walked away, Rob tried to explain why the Wall was so important to some, and that when those soldiers fighting in Vietnam first came home, they were not welcomed as heroes because the conflict was so polarizing to the people. These were things that she could not comprehend.
This is the difficulty with history. To a 3rd grader, things can sometimes seem so black and white - a soldier returning home from war is a hero and should be treated as such. Someone fighting and dying for our country a hero as well. She tried to rationalize these feelings into solutions to a problem long past and offered reasoning for something that may never be explained. Finding it too difficult to explain to her at this point, we quietly walked away and headed back to our daily lives. I am hopeful that she will remember her visit to the Wall and when she is older, will be better equipped to understand some of the more difficult aspects of this part of history. Then again, this might be one of those things that we may never fully understand, even the adults.