Kids will be kids. They don’t really understand what it means.

Once again, last Friday, Oct. 20, the Wilton community was confronted by images of hate and intolerance. School officials notified parents of Middlebrook students late Friday afternoon that two more swastikas had been discovered, graffitied on a 6th grade bathroom wall just two weeks after a similar incident. It’s not the first time this has happened in Wilton. Sadly, it likely won’t be the last.

When it does happen, here’s the worst case scenario–it’s committed by kids who DO know what they’re doing, or whose older siblings know and are passing down the hurtful example, or whose parents teach the lesson of intolerance at home. That these are kids who have learned this behavior and hate.

The ‘best’ case–it was drawn by kids who don’t know why the symbol is hurtful and hateful, but they know they’ll get a reaction and cause a stir. Which isn’t really ‘best’ case at all.

What’s just as bad? If whoever drew it doesn’t know what that symbol represents, then we have failed as parents, as teachers and as a community to explain why it carries a meaning of hate, and make it a tangible enough reason so that they can see how it is not just something from history or long ago, but that it has meaning and significance for members of the community right now.

My grandparents escaped from Poland in 1939. Or rather, they were taken to a Russian work camp because they were in Eastern Poland when Russia invaded. That geographical stroke of luck meant the difference between life and death for them. Their siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, who were in Western Poland, were not so fortunate. They were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. I was named Heather Beth in memory of my great-grandparents Herman and Bertha–the grandparents my father never got to meet.

I grew up knowing about the fear that led my grandfather to change the family name to something more American sounding, from Bornstein to Borden. Imagine a fear so strong to make you shed your name. To know people with numbers tattooed on their arms. To know that one of the cousins who perished at the hands of the Nazis was only 5-years-old.

Kristallnacht. Ghettos. Cattle cars. Auschwitz. That’s what the swastika means. If they were herded up and imprisoned and killed because they were Jews, and I am a Jew…could it happen to me? The first time someone called me a kike was when I was in 5th grade. Kids this age know.

It’s a heavy legacy for someone to grow up knowing, and it’s a lot for children to be told–but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. I’ve been forever taught the phrase, “Never forget,” as part of any lesson on the Holocaust. It’s so that the world forever remembers those taken from us, and it’s so that the injustice is never allowed to happen again.

“Kids will be kids.” Actually, kids will be tolerant, or kids won’t. It’s up to us as adults to help them make the right choice.

But we’re seeing a resurgence in recent events, in Charlottesville, in stories about neo-Nazi, alt-right extremists who aren’t masking their beliefs anymore. The undercurrent of racial conflict, intolerant acts and outward expressions of hate are being played out and broadcast, and in our media centric, digitally dependent way of life, kids this age see and hear…and know.

Kids will be kids. They’re just kids, they don’t know better.  There were Jewish kids who came home on Friday, afraid. One was afraid to wear a Jewish star necklace. Another afraid to even go to school. Kids this age know.

My daughter came home from Middlebrook last week and told me about her team-wide discussion, during which she learned from a Hindu classmate of hers about the symbolism of the swastika in his culture. That it means purity, health, and wealth, among other things, and that it invites peace. These Middlebrook students talked about how a symbol of such spirituality and goodness had been appropriated by the Nazis and as a result had come to be stigmatized, and represent such horror. She learned about the nuances and differences, integrating an important piece of knowledge about and respect for a classmate, added to her worldview on tolerance, acceptance and community. Kids this age can learn the difference.

It’s up to all of us, as adults, to not dismiss this as kids will be kids. Because what kids really are is knowing and observant. Kids will be tolerant and kind. Or kids will be willing to perpetuate intolerance and hate. It’s up to us as adults to make sure they make the right choice.

3 replies on “What the Swastika on a Middlebrook Wall Means to Me”

  1. Heather, Thank you for sharing your personal story as that adds significant meaningfulness and perspective to an otherwise sad and stupid “kid event.” Cheers.

  2. Heather, Thank you for sharing your story. My family was fortunate to be out of Europe by the time of the Holocaust but, my grandparents had a close friend with a concentration camp number on his arm. This brought the horror of it very close to us. It is vital we never forget. We must teach all children both the importance of vigilance and understanding so, it never happens to anyone again.

  3. You could not have said it any better. Intolerance is learned at home and perpetuated by hate groups such as the Alt Right and New-Nazis. It is truly sad that kids in our small, well-policed town feel unsafe due to these isolated incidents of hate.

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