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When I heard about Nelson Mandela’s death, I showed my four-year-old son Mandela’s picture in the paper.
“This was a great man,” I said, my voice wavering. “I want you to see his picture, and know that he was a great man.”
“Why are you sad, Mama?” he asked.
I tried to explain that I was sad because I admired this man. This man changed everything, I said, and then he died, which meant he was no longer in the world. Part of me wondered why I was even trying. To Sam, it was just a picture of some guy in the newspaper. I pointed out South Africa on his map-of-the-world placemat.
“He lives with giraffes!” Sam exclaimed, pointing to the cartoon giraffe near the bottom of the continent. Now, this was something he could get behind.
I had overshot. Whatever it was I was doing, it was about me, not Sam. I kissed him and sent him back to his Legos.
I guess I was trying because Sam is on the brink of learning about everything that is wrong with the world. Bullies and racism and homelessness – it’s all looming. None of it makes sense to a kid versed in the rules of his world: Be nice. Give other people a turn. We will always take care of you.
I remember when I first heard about apartheid. I was in Grade 4 in Minnesota. My wonderful, wacky teacher was an aging hippie. She played guitar, wrote out the lyrics for songs by Peter, Paul and Mary and Arlo Guthrie on overhead transparencies (remember those?) and projected them onto the wall. We sat at her feet and sang them, swaying like a bunch of pint-sized Hare Krishnas.
She also taught us about apartheid – about this world where black people lived in townships without resources and were stripped of citizenship and rights, while white people went about their prosperous lives, often served by black people.
The concept threw my nine-year-old world off its axis. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t make sense. How could grownups come up with a system like that? Didn’t everyone see what a sham it was?
Later that year we had to do independent projects. I wanted to do something about apartheid. But what does a Grade 4 girl from Minnesota do about a racist system of oppression half a world away?
We had learned about the idea of boycotts and sanctions, and my mom suggested I find out about which big companies were doing business in South Africa and write to their chief executives to ask them why. I seized on this idea, and we went to the library and came up with a list of 10 major companies that had operations in South Africa. I dusted off my dad’s typewriter and wrote a letter to each CEO explaining why I thought they should pull out, and asking why they hadn’t already.
I was galvanized. I felt powerful. I pasted copies of the letters into a cardboard scrapbook that I made. My teacher was impressed, and I got an A. No one wrote me back.
That in itself was a lesson: a hard one. How could it be that people knew they were doing something wrong, something that hurt other people, but they just kept doing it? Another thing that didn’t make sense. And clearly, what I thought about the whole thing didn’t matter.
I wish I could say that I went on to become an activist, but I didn’t. I carried on with my comfortable life. But I watched with extra interest as Mandela was released from prison and as apartheid was dismantled.
As he happily plays with his Lego trucks, Sam doesn’t yet know how heartbreaking the world can be. He doesn’t know that the power brokers of capitalism don’t care what he thinks. He will find out soon, and the prospect hurts my heart.
What I was trying to say to him that morning was something a four-year-old can’t grasp – a bunch of overlapping things that were muddled in my own mind, but weighty enough, even in their vagueness, to make him sense that I was sad.
I was trying to say something about the accident of birth.
We’re here, and we’re so incredibly lucky. I want him to know that – but, selfishly, I want him to keep being lucky.
I wanted to tell him that I’m sad that his universe of certainty and morality is about to be upended.
And I was trying to say that even though we live in a world that needs changing so badly, the most amazing thing is that, every once in a while, a person comes along who changes it.
Jenny Hall lives in Toronto.