“How Can Mothers Give Birth To Such Monsters?

It was late at night.  Most of the patients were sleeping, but one was not.  He was tossing and turning, hovering between sanity and insanity.  The pain from the shrapnel wound he had received fighting for the Ukrainian resistance had not subsided, but that was not what was troubling him.  Only a few hours ago, he had learned of the death of his new wife and child.  His wife had been the prettiest girl in the village and they had looked forward to a long life together.  She, too, had been a fighter for Ukrainian independence, but had been captured by the Germans.  In a narrow prison with grimy walls, she had been tortured, and finally hanged, but not before she saw her baby’s skull shattered at the hands of the Nazis.  One thought tormented Vasya:  “How can mothers give birth to such monsters?”   He continued to moan from pain and despair.  Where was his future happiness now?  He thought back to his first date, and the sparkle in his bride’s eyes.  The Ukrainian steppe, which once seemed a boundless reach of possibilities, was now shrouded in gloom and uncertainty.  The more he thought, the angrier he got, and gripped the bedsheets, clenching his teeth.  Yet those actions assuaged some of his anger and he thought of his dead child and the many helpless children that are subjected to man’s inhumanity.  A new look shone in his eyes.  This was a confident look, a look of determination.  Vasya had made a decision:  “I will give my heart to children.”

Suddenly, his mind spun out a series of ideas.  He thought of his mentors:  Anton Makarenko and Janusz Korczak.  Makarenko had transformed would-be delinquents into future lawyers, doctors, architects, builders, teachers.  He had written his Pedagogical Poem in three parts after Dante, showing the progression from student hell to student heaven.  However, to achieve his aims, he had to make use of corporal punishment, and sheer intimidation.  Vasya would have none of that.  He would build the pride and confidence of his pupils, but he would do so from trust and love, not from coercion.  Korczak had been a hero to Vasya.  He had marched with his students to the gas chambers at Treblinka,  accompanying them as their teacher and friend to the very end.  The “Old Doctor”  had placed great emphasis on the health of his students.  This was a concept Vasya could embrace, because he believed in beautiful, healthy children.  He could not know that on the other side of the globe, in the despised imperialist U.S., another writer, the children’s writer, L. Frank Baum, had said the same thing many years before:  ” In all this world there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child.”  Vasya would see to it that the children had ample time for exercise and he would expose them to the elements to strengthen their bodies.

The mind that had been immersed in gloomy thoughts, now spun out more and more positive, expansive thoughts.  Vasya turned once again to his Ukrainian homeland with fruit trees, winding meadows and the ripening fields of grain.  Yes, he wanted children to experience nature in all its grandeur.  He wanted children to experience the awe and mystery of their natural surroundings.  And the thought came to him:  “I will build a school of joy.  I want students to feel beauty in all its manifestations.  Nature will be a wellspring for reading, writing and counting.  Already, he could see parts of future compositions floating about, lighting up the dreary hospital room:  “The Little Sun has arisen.  The little birds have wakened.  A lark ascends into the sky.  The sunflower has also awakened.”  And I will teach the children fairy tales, and we will listen to the music of the streams…

Vasya had exhausted himself with his thoughts and he fell asleep.  However, he never lost his concentrated look and his determination.  From dawn until the evening he would work with students, teachers, parents, and other staff, to create his special school in Pavlysh.  Despite attacks of angina and weakness, he would persevere, and fight for the dignity of children to the end.  When the doctors opened him up at the last, they could not believe he had lived as long as he had, so damaged was his body.  But Vasya had triumphed to become Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.

A proud Vasilij Sukhomlinskij

A proud Vasilii Sukhomlinsky

Children’s Independence Day: July 4, 1862, Part 2.

And, as the man began to speak, a strange thing happened.  Shock waves were felt in libraries across the world.  Strong winds blew books off the shelves.  And the moralizing, degrading, pompous tomes were cast into a literary black hole.  The Mary Martha Sherwoods, Sandford and Mertons, Anna Laetitia Barbaulds, faded into oblivion.  New books of beauty took their places.  The garden of childhood was opened to reveal an abundance of green carefree space, filled with toys, games and a treasure trove of waiting memories.  The man took the oars, and continued his tale, inspired by the gazing eyes of three young girls.  He was truly in his element.  And through a series of gestures, the twinkle in his eye, the wry smile that crossed his lips, he drew his listeners ever closer into his tale.  As he spun his story, the adult world, which had tyrannized children for centuries, was mocked, and turned on its head.  The hypocrisy, the insipid moralizing of adults, was transformed into utter nonsense, much to his young audience’s delight, who clapped their small hands and laughed for joy.  He even included the girls in his story and gave them parts like a dramatist.  He also borrowed from the outings they had shared:  tea parties, new rules for croquet, a pack of cards, magic tricks, picnics on the lawn.  The sound of the river strokes blended with the speaker’s soft voice…  The rain that delayed their journey the previous day had disappeared completely, although it reappeared in the continuing tale.  The narrator was also included in the story, but yielded to the presence of one Victorian girl.  It was she with dark cropped hair that had captivated Charles the most.  The far reaching eyes, the pensive mind, the girlish laughter.  He courted her in the only way he knew; through whimsy, playfulness and ineffable charm.  Like a conjurer, he opened the garden of childhood to Alice.  She was just the right age to enjoy the assault on the adult world and her own place in it.   Charles was brimming with ideas that spilled into the wonderland of his story.  The ideas came from mathematics, philosophy, politics, discussions he had with colleagues at Christ Church.  He had told stories before, but entranced by his eager audience, and enamored of Alice, he wove such a compelling tale that it ignited a revolution in literature and changed the concept of childhood forever.  Its iridescent glow peaked through the catacombs, and lit up the literary canvases of George MacDonald, Kenneth Grahame, L. Frank Baum and countless others extending the realm of the child still further…  Charles was unsuccessful in his courtship of Alice, and was ultimately banished from her home.  But, he gave her a special gift; that of literary immortality…

Charles with his two Alices

Charles with his two Alices

Children’s Independence Day: July 4, 1862, Part 1.

Children have long been neglected throughout the world and the concept of childhood is relatively recent.  In the Middle Ages, children were often depicted as dwarfish, misshapen adults.  Children were considered incomplete, in need of constant correction.  So it should come as no surprise, that one of the first English pieces written for children in the Middle Ages was how to sit at the table.  Other instructional verse followed.  During the Puritan era, many parents thought that the best thing their children could do would be to die and thus be spared a world of unending temptations and troubles.  And many obedient children did just that.  Imagination in the minds of children could only lead them astray.  They had to be reminded of the torments they would suffer if they didn’t behave properly.  The Bible, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were obligatory reading and the alphabet was stuffed down children’s throats.  Chapbooks from hawkers provided an escape into the worlds of Robin Hood, The Arabian Nights and other landing places for the imagination.  But such reading was not dignified by parents; it was an underground literature.  Novels for children drew clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad children.  They were written to inculcate moral values in children and to glorify and affirm parental authority.  One contemporary scholar called such writers “The Monstrous Regiment.”  The following excerpt from Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family is sufficient:

Lucy:  …  I do not wish to take Miss Augusta’s things from her, or to hurt her.  Emily and I only wish to be like her and to have the same things she has.

Mrs. Fairchild:  What you now feel, my dears, is not exactly envy, though it is very like it.  it is what is called Ambition.  Ambition is the desire to be greater than we are.  Ambition makes people unhappy and discontented with what they are and what they have.  Ambition is in the heart of every man by nature;  but, before we can go to heaven, it must be taken out of our hearts, because it is a temper that God hates–though it is spoken of, by people who do not fear God, as a very good thing.

The novel ends with a “child’s” prayer: ” …  I know that my heart is full of sin and that my body is corrupt and filthy, and that I must soon die and go down into the dust;  and yet I am so foolish and so wicked as to wish to be great in this world…”

And then, on July 4, 1862, a man of thirty with dark wavy hair, sensitive eyes and a soft complexion started speaking and everything changed.