I. last week was in high school, asked to talk about how books and writing help develop a sense of empathy. Before the session, I reviewed my books in search of works that could tell students how they were invited to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
I started with the personal: when I was 11, I came across a photo of a mother with a baby on her lap. I asked my father if it was me or my brother. He looked up and said it wasn’t any of us, but a dead child, named Alan. As I explained in my poem “According to Old Photos”, I heard about this brother for the first time. The work ends with a question about my parents: although my father mentioned Alan several times over the years, my mother never mentioned him; I ask myself who was more upset with this. I passed this on to the students.
From this personal story I moved on to other mysteries of childhood and adolescence, such as when my father mysteriously mentioned two French uncles who were in France at the beginning of the war but not there at the end. I asked the students to think about what might have happened. Or as my father’s cousin my parents put me on a train when he was 17 and he no longer saw them. How would that feel?
I knew there were students in the audience who were refugees or whose parents, and the experience of lost relatives may be too familiar.
Then I told them how I found out what happened to those uncles: they were put on the lists. One was arrested along with his wife in Nice, just as they thought they were going to sail to freedom in North Africa, and the other was arrested at 2.30am and deported. I showed them a police report written the morning after my father’s uncle Martin’s arrest. I asked the students to think about the state of mind of the policemen when they wrote down the details of what he was wearing on Martin – his cotton shirt and pants (pajamas?), Flat shoes, beret. They also recorded his height (1 m 62), noted the scar on his face, the shape of his nose and the fact that he was of “Jewish race”. “It’s all ‘official’ and ‘legal,'” I said.
At one point in the session, the issue of lists and deportations arose. One student spoke about the difficulties of coming to a new country. I suddenly thought of people arriving in Britain who may face deportation by our own government in Rwanda. I found myself running back and forth in thoughts between events in my family history in 1943 and 1944 and what is happening now. What enabled these four gendarmes to arrest a person who did not commit offenses? What allows the government now to instruct its officials to do something similar … and what thinking will allow these officials to do the work of arresting people and boarding them on buses and planes? Would it help them to do this job if they felt that the people they were protecting were not from their own “race”? It seems that a different opinion is expressed about the desperate people of Ukraine. Why is that?
I am telling you this story because sometimes it may seem that the words and actions of your government are in an area separate from education, school and students, and yet in this session what the government says and does was very relevant.
On the way home, I marveled at how students see what is happening in Westminster as teachers and parents try to convey social ideas to them: things like honesty, the rule of law, respect, economic justice and gender equality. Scandals are growing, aren’t they? Partygate, Tractorgate, security contracts, fuel bills … The classes I’ve attended are always held in schools across the UK, and parents have the same discussions with their children. The last thing we, teachers or parents, want to look like is hypocrites, advising young people to behave in a way that the country’s legislators themselves cannot handle.
Here you go, Mr. Zahavi. I understand that you are not the Archbishop of Canterbury, and no one expects you to be some kind of moral arbiter, but I tell you: do you not think that in your work to indicate to teachers and parents that at least you understand how difficult it has become our work lately, talking to young people about empathy and social values?
It’s a matter of empathy, actually.
Yours, Michael Rosen