Friday, January 22, 2010

Armed and Dangerous: Children's Literature as a Corrosive Agent to Sanity.

It's weird how some ideas can stick to your soul like lint on Velcro and never go away.

When I was seven or eight years old, two of my older sisters were in a car accident which required them to be in the hospital for what seemed like a very long time. I was too young to be allowed entrance to the hospital so I was stuck alone in the waiting room for hours on end, day after day. Boredom set in fast and I can still remember that waiting room in vivid detail since I inspected every inch of it.

Now, there were magazines there and, being the voracious reader I was, I whipped through them at amazing speed, especially the Highlights for Kids, solving every puzzle and finding every hidden picture there was. I had pretty much made up the back stories of Goofus and Gallant and decided that while Goofus was a hideous child, he was more than just a tad bit interesting than Gallant. (This early imprinting could explain some of my dating choices in college.)

I looked around for more reading choices. There were pamphlets up high. Standing on my tip toes I could read some of the titles, "Bowel Disease and You," "Taking Care of your Wound," and some old tattered ones, "Can You Survive an Atomic Attack?"

Then, one day I found a thick book with a bright blue cover. I can't remember the name of the book but it was written for children and I think it had a picture of Jesus on the cover surrounded by sheep and small boys and girls in flowing little outfits (the children--not the sheep).

I read the first two stories--fairly predictable ones about being kind to people, being honest, etc. It was standard Christian fare--the kind I got nearly every Sunday at church.

Then I read the next story and was transfixed.

The story featured a boy who was very ill and in the hospital. Another boy in the hospital came by and asked him how he was doing. The boy in the bed related how he was very sick and very tired and wanted to get some rest. The second boy talked about how Jesus loved all children and wanted the best for them. Then he suggested that the boy prop up his arm on his pillow that night as a sign to Jesus that he was tired and wanted rest. He even helped him shove the pillow under his arm so his forearm and hand were pointing straight up.

The next day the boy was found dead with a smile on his face. Jesus had seen the hand up and come to give him eternal rest.


I sat there reading the last line of the story over and over. Suppose my sisters in that hospital accidentally propped up their arms that night? Suppose Jesus was in a hurry and just took every hand up during sleep as a signal that person was ready to go? (How handy for him! What a time saver!)

I went home and decided if it could happen in a hospital, it could possibly happen at home. I stacked books on top of pillows and slid my arms underneath, weighing them down so there was no possibility of them popping up in the night. I slept that way for weeks.

This story haunted me for years. Whenever I would see anyone sleeping, their arm and hand propped up, my immediate response was an urge to go and put it down immediately. (OK, well, maybe not everybody. I did have one fairly annoying college roommate.)

It's been about 43 years since I read that story. I've grown. I've matured. I've studied life, religion, and literature. I've got perspective. I understand metaphor. I'm generally a very balanced, sane person. And YET when I walked in the bedroom this morning and saw Evan like this:

I have to admit I wanted to tackle the poor child, force his arm down and scream out, "He doesn't mean it! Yes! He's been having some pain and OK, he's been tired, but he's not ready to go!"

Oh, a curse, a CURSE, I say upon that person who wrote that story for children those many years ago. This story has stuck like a burr to the inside of my brain and continues to needle me. If I could go back to that waiting room and rip that book out of my eight-year old hands I would. "Here," I'd say as I handed my little-girl-self the pamphlet on an atomic attack. "This one is going to haunt you a whole lot less. Read it instead."


LittleSilkDress said...

OMG!!! I, too, understand the metaphor, but WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?! Other children must have been traumatized for life, too. YIKES. I might stick my arms safely under the pillow tonight, too. haha ;)

Trisha Dawn said...

Okay, that is bad. But don't you worry about Evan. Last night when I was saying prayers with E and M, E listed off a lot of things she was thankful for. Then I asked if there was anything she wanted to pray for, and she kept pointing to her arm. After several wrong guesses on what she meant, she said, "Our cousin who hurt his arm sledding." I said, "Oh! Evan!" She said yes, she couldn't remember his name but she wanted to pray for his arm. So I suspect that a four year old little girl's prayer will outweigh any time Evan has his arm up in the air. (And I hope he isn't offended that she thinks it happened when he was sledding.)

But that truely is a horrible story.

Bossy Betty said...

Oh! Thank you, my commenters!

That was so sweet of E and I think you are absolutely right that her sweet prayer was processed quickly and without question because of its sincerity!

Susan said...

Oh Betty, I, too, read that story while waiting in the doctor's office, and I, too, had the nightmares for weeks. I told my girlfriend about it recently, so when you wrote this blog entry, I couldn't wait to share it with her so that I didn't seem quite so insane. They really should have put an age restriction on that book, but I suspect even adults found that story creepy!

Bossy Betty said...

I am SO glad some one else remembers this story! Glad to see your smiling face back on my blog!

Anonymous said...

Jesus Kevorkian?


Anonymous said...

I've told people about that book my whole life, and everyone thinks it's nuts. As a child, I would see it at the doctor's office whenever I went in there, and like a horror movie, it sucked me in despite the fear it roused in me.

For a long time after I worried I would roll over in the middle of the night and my hand would stick up in the air, and then Jesus would come and take me away. Whoever thought this book would be good for children must have been insane.

- Rich

jenny said...

Ha! I remember this story as well - but it never bothered me, for some reason. I think I figured the man upstairs would just KNOW the difference between someone who needed to be taken and someone who got contorted while sleeping.