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What Eight Knows

Publication Date: 2005-02-07

Please read this very strong piece about the moral truth of an eight-year-old.

NOTE: Phyllis Schlafly once told Phil Donahue (in response to his question) that if the Gestapo asked her if she knew where Anne Frank was hiding, she would be morally compelled to tell the truth.

My eight year old read Twenty and Ten a couple of weeks ago. Twenty and Ten is a 3rd-grade reading level chapter book, and as gentle an introduction to the subject of the Holocaust as you're likely to find in all of children's literature.

Let me tell you about Eight. He is my literalist child, the super-judgmental rules are rules kid, the one who, while cursed with plenty of sensitivities and overexcitabilities, blessedly does not suffer from his sister's Social Conscience Out To HERE problem. Eight knows what he knows, Eight brooks no uncertainties, and Eight fears nothing. I almost lost all credibility with Eight when I tried to prepare him for the emotional intensity of Charlotte's Web, the ending of which had reduced my then-6 year old daughter to puddles. Eight was disappointed in Charlotte's Web, and I think in me, too. "I thought you said this was sad book," he said, giving me a look. "A spider dies. We step on spiders all the time; what's so sad about that?"

Yet, when we discussed Twenty and Ten, even he more than understood the concept that if you are a French Catholic nun hiding Jewish children in your school during the occupation in World War II, you commit no sins in the eyes of God or man when you tell the Nazis at the door that there's no one else on the premises. That's obvious even to him.

Eight's Best Friend -- who for some reason or another having to do with his mother's job and his father's student financial aid or the state's stupid paperwork requirements, was accidentally dis-enrolled from the Medicaid program for 60 days -- recently, and during that 60-day insurance limbo, came down with a bad case of strep throat. His mother asked my husband, a physician, for advice on how to get Best Friend's fever down without spending a precious $50 (which she wouldn't have until payday in any event) at the ambulatory care center. Even Beloved Spouse, hater of all things socialized medicine, muttered something unrepeatable, picked up the phone, called in a prescription in Eight's name, and had me sign for it with Eight's insurance card and give the kid the damned medicine. That was obvious even to him.

I recently got an email from a Texas public school teacher confessing that she has given a few of her students extra hints when proctoring their state-mandated high stakes tests. "They just worked so damned hard, and I know they know (the material), but the test is so scary that they freeze up sometimes, " she wrote. "I know they would be just so hurt and disappointed to fail, and it just kills me to think they'd think I was disappointed in them too, so maybe I shake my head at them when they pick a wrong answer, or maybe I just look at the answer sheet in a certain way." With so many people in high places gaming the system for their own benefit, she didn't feel remorse about evening the odds with a few non-verbal cues for the sake of the children with whom she's been entrusted. That was obvious even to her.

Not everything is relative. For every decision, there's a right, and a wrong choice. Sometimes it's obvious which ones are which. But that doesn't mean that such situational ethics issues are not worth talking about. To astute sensibilities, like those of young children, what the Nazis were doing was wrong, what the rationing-health-care-by-inconvenience policies do is wrong, and what the TAKS standardistos are doing is wrong, not ONLY because they damage their intended victims, but because they cause so much trouble for the good people who are forced into moral contortions trying to mitigate the damage and keep their self-respect.

Even Eight concluded that the Nazis were evil not only because if Sister had told the truth they would have arrested her and killed the children, but because, "because of them, she was not able to tell them the truth." To his fragile little conscience, there is something inherently, particularly, go-straight-to-hell-do-not-pass-go-in-purgatory, WRONG, about making a nun lie.

In all of the discussions about behavior modification systems, rewards and punishments, and teaching "values" in the schools, this is a point that's missing: there's more to being a good person than following the rules.

There's more to honesty than the telling of the literal truth. (For that matter, there's more to lying than the telling of a literal falsehood -- Texas school administrators have perfected the art of Creative Bureaucracy.) Lying, when defined only as not telling the literal truth, and when it is not "bearing false witness", or spreading lies intended to damage a person's good name, is not -- I have this on the authority of a former seminary student -- strictly under the terms of the prevailing religions, a sin.

But FORCING someone of good character to lie, or putting them into a position that reasonable people would think it obviously necessary, not as a means of self-preservation but as a means of preserving another person, a soul, a community, an intellect, a moment of childhood -- I have this on no authority other than Eight's -- ought to be. An abuse of power which forces good Christians to lie, good citizens to break the law, good teachers to cheat, or good doctors to violate the code of ethics in order to do the right thing, is not just a bad, stupid, right-wing policy; it's an evil. A sin.

I fear for Texas' immortal soul.

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