Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

A Policy Of Official Misery — Paid For By Us

The sight of a yellow school bus driving through a neighborhood is uniquely comforting in its message of stability, order, and predictability. The bus stops, doors open, children hug their parents, and with backpacks swinging awkwardly, climb the steps and take their seats.

They know and we know where they’re going: inside a building where adults will help them learn how to use words, how to use numbers, and how to measure their days by a clock.

A nightmarish inversion of all of that is happening to the children who were separated from their parents by border and ICE agents. They are victims of a policy that is paid for with the same tax dollars that put other children on a school bus.

Many of the separated children are so young that the only thing they’ve learned is their first name and how old they are. This fact comes to life with devastating effect in The Daily podcast two-part series, “The Divided.”

I’m not much of a crier — especially not in public and certainly not in the waiting room of the dentist’s office — yet the voices of children trying their best to learn the English words for colors and numbers caused me to weep openly.

The Power of Podcasting as a Medium

The audio gutted me because of its familiarity to the work of teachers everywhere right now. The children’s teachers are reporters, volunteers, and immigration attorneys since they are incarcerated.

More than 2,000 of them, which for me is the size of the entire student body at the high school where I taught, were taken from their families at the border. A border that, as a native Texan, I’ve grown up knowing as its Spanish name, La Frontera. Life for these children, the New York Times reports, is “a rough blend of boarding school, daycare center, and medium security lockup.”

More than 300 of them remain in custody, 100 of whom are under 5 years old. A particularly insidious bureaucratic scheme deported their parents before they could be reunited. Twenty of them have parents who can’t be located at all. The U.S. District Judge overseeing the fallout of the separations said that this is “100% the responsibility of the current Administration.”

No one, the reporter says, really knows what will happen to them.

CreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times

A Short Story That’s Finding New Life Under Trump

Since learning about these separations in early summer, I’ve not been able to shake the comparison to a short story that begins in summer. It’s about people who know something terrible is happening, but choose to turn back to their sports, their beer, their music — their joy, as the writer Ursula K. Le Guin describes it.

In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Le Guin explains that the people are aware that their utopian city’s fortune is built on the officially sanctioned agony of one child. Her unsparing prose describes it:

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket…

The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often.

Those words came back into my memory because I remember reading it in school and thinking, “Thank God, this is just a philosophical thought experiment and not something that would ever happen in real life.”

Yet, reports about these real-life incarcerated children describe them as traumatized in a way no one would wish on an animal, much less a child. Some of them have been sexually abused while in custody, some have died.

Even if some are miraculously reunited with their families, they will still experience significant psychological suffering.

We Decide How The Story Ends

Le Guin’s story ends with a note of hope for human nature. Some people, after they’ve seen the child in the basement, leave their homes and walk out and away from the city, never to return.

An initial public outcry caused Donald Trump to issue an executive order mandating the reunification of families in late June. But in a summer clogged with a dense cholesterol of news about World Cup soccer, Cardi B’s baby, and court intrigue about Trump’s inner circle, the children’s plight is squeezed into the background.

And since we, to paraphrase Robert Frost, do not have small children we love hidden away in a maze of anonymous buildings around the country, we turn to our affairs.

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Shanna Peeples

Shanna Peeples

Ed. Professor | Harvard Ed.L.D. | 2015 National Teacher of the Year | Author: Think Like Socrates |