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The five-and six-year-olds in my class have invented a new game they call suicide. I have never seen a game I hate so much in which all the children involved are so happy.
So begins Under Deadman's Skin, a deceptively simple-and compellingly readable-teachers' tale. Jane Katch, in the tradition of Vivian Paley and Jonathan Kozol, uses her student's own vocabulary and storytelling to set the scene: a class of five-and six-year-olds obsessed with what is to their teacher hatefully violent fantasy play. Katch asks, 'Can I make a place in school for understanding these fantasies, instead of shutting them out?'
Over the course of the year she holds group discussions to determine what kind of play creates or calms turmoil; she illustrates (or rather the children illustrate) the phenomenon of very young children needing to make sense of exceptionally violent imagery; and she consults with older grade-school boys who remember what it was like to be obsessed by violence and tell Katch what she can do to help. Katch's classroom journey-one that leads her to rules and limits that keep children secure-is an enabling blueprint for any teacher or parent disturbed by violent children's play.
The Suicide Game
The five- and six-year-olds in my class have invented a new game called Suicide. They play it in the room when they've finished their work, and outdoors at recess. I have never seen a game I hate so much in which all the children involved are so happy. It follows our three classroom rules for violence in play, rules the children and I have made and refined together, and to which they carefully adhere: no excessive blood, no cutting off of body parts, and no guts spilled. It also follows our rule about what the children have labeled "mushy stuff": the people in their stories cannot take off their clothes. Animals can. But the suicide game does get very noisy, so when I look for an excuse to stop it, that is the only one I can find.
"This game is too loud!" I tell the four players one morning. "I'm trying to have a reading group, and we can't hear each other. You'll have to stop, clean up the mess, and make a different choice. You can play this game later, outside."
"But we like this!" Seth argues. One of the tallest children in the class, he stands straight and looks me in the eye. His recent short haircut accentuates his new older-boy look.
"Can we stay in the drama area but play a different game?" Seth's best friend, Daniel, asks.
"You can try that, but if it's still too loud, you'll have to choose one of the table activities, like art of small blocks," I relent a bit.
"Let's play Suicide," I hear Seth say as I walk away.
"That's what we were playing," Gregory answers.
Where did they learn about suicide, these six-year-olds? I look around the room. At the art table, children make clothes and beds for their Beanie Babies. In the block area, the kittens are building traps for the mice. Why does a group of apparently normal, happy children choose to play Suicide?
"Let's make Bernie come to outer space," Seth suggests. Bernie is Gregory's imaginary friend and the main character in most of his stories. I wonder if Gregory will object to this treatment.
"Yeah!" Daniel says enthusiastically. "Me and Seth ate space aliens!"
"Bernie commits suicide." Gregory gives his approval.
"There's two Bernies and two aliens," Daniel says, clarifying the structure of the game.
Nina joins the plans. "I'll be a Bernie, I guess." She sounds a bit reluctant, but she is Gregory's best friend and wants to be his ally.
"I can take on Gregory," Seth says to Daniel. "You take on Nina."
I know they haven't really changed the game as they promised. They've just moved into outer space, further away from critical teachers. But they are, for the moment, quiet, and the children in my reading group are doing well on their own, so I continue to eavesdrop, hoping no parents enter the room. I don't think they'd approve of the suicide game.
"We have special seats that you guys go in, and we make you commit suicide," Daniel explains.
"Now, sit on that chair" Seth commands to Gregory. "We can blow you up! S-s-s-s-s-s-s! Now! Commit suicide!"
"You have to be funny, like, so silly." Daniel adds a new dimension.
Gregory understands immediately, and starts talking baby talk.
"Okay, Bernie." Seth takes over. "Here's an apple."
"An apple!" gurgles Gregory happily, taking the plastic food. "Goo, goo!" he adds, taking a pretend bite. They all laugh loudly.
"It's really a hand grenade. Do you know you're gonna explode, Gregory? It's gonna kill you!" Their laughter contrasts sharply with their words, making the scene even more macabre and disturbing to me, but Gregory appears unconcerned. "I'm gonna commit suicide to myself," he chortles. "Eeee!" He explodes happily onto the floor.
"That was fun," Seth reports. "We're the masters. If you killed your master, you would die anyway," he tells Gregory, who is getting up for another round. "Want a ball?"
Will Gregory, a highly competitive boy who always must be on the winning team, continue to accept the slave role?
"Yeah!" he says enthusiastically.
Seth hands Gregory a plastic plate. "I didn't say, `Ball.' I said, `Bomb!'" They all laugh. He looks at me. "Can we put on a play of this, for the whole class?"
"No," I say without explanation.
"Aw," Seth complains. He scribbles on a piece of paper and turns back to Gregory. "Now this note says if you don't commit suicide, you'll be dead for a whole year!" He folds the paper and hands it over. "Follow me of I'll shoot you!"
Why do Gregory and Nina, usually such imaginative, constructive leaders in the class, want to be helpless victims in the grip of this alien sadistic force? Is the thrill of Seth's latest violent fantasy too exciting to resist? I must stop this game. I can, at least, banish it to the playground, where I don't have to hear it or give it my seal of approval by allowing it.
At our next class meeting, I announce an abrupt change of rules to the children. "When you play games that are violent," I tell them, "it's too hard for you to settle down. Since math always begins right after recess, on some days it is hard for you to concentrate on your work."
"That's just because we haven't finished our game," Seth explains.
"I understand. But from now on, when you play pretend indoors, I want you to play games that are not violent and have no shooting or killing in them."
"Can't we have no blood, just shooting?" Seth asks, reminding me of our class agreement.
"Can't you go, `Ch ch ch'? Quietly?" asks Nina.
Seth shoots at Daniel across the rug. "Ch-ch-ch."
"I'm going to close the drama area if you do that," I say firmly. The space for dramatic play, including dress-ups and the house area, is one of the most popular choices in the room, and the children sit up straighter, realizing how serious I am. They all start talking at once, surprised at my abrupt change of rules.
"Can we play a game with wild animals in the jungle?" Nina asks.
"If it's not too wild," I answer.
"Can we hunt with bows and arrows?"
"We can try hunting," I relent.
"How 'bout animals tear up people?" Daniel asks.
"No," I say firmly.
"We'll cut them up," Seth whispers to him.
"No," I say. "You won't."
The discussion over, I am relieved. For once, I will act the way other teachers do and just prohibit the awful stuff.
After school, I complain to the principal, telling her about the new game and my authoritarian response to it. She listens thoughtfully. "You must have worked with violent children when you worked at Bruno Bettelheim's school," she says. "What would he have said about this?"
I am taken by surprise. She is right, of course. Working with emotionally disturbed children for eight years, I must have learned something that could be useful to me now. Yet I've separated that experience into a special compartment, not to be opened.
"I don't know what you learned from him," she goes on, "but whatever it is, it makes your work different."
"How?" I ask, startled.
"It has to do with empathy," she says.
It seems so clear, once she's said it, like something I've always known but didn't want to remember. Why didn't I think about this before, while I was wondering about the violent fantasies of these children?
I know the answer as soon as I hear the question. If I look at those memories, I'll have to see the pain that was there as well as the knowledge I gained. Bettelheim demanded that we learn to understand the children by first looking at our own feelings.
Excerpted from Under Deadman's Skin by JANE KATCH. Copyright © 2001 by Jane Katch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|INTRODUCTION BY VIVIAN GUSSIN PALEY||00|
|1. The Suicide Game||1|
|3. Rated R||8|
|4. The Party||12|
|8. He Knows I Know He Knows||30|
|9. The F-word||33|
|11||Vulnerable Bad Guys, Electric Fences, and Poisonous|
|12. A Vulnerable Writer||45|
|14. The Rules of Violence||48|
|16. The White Ninja||60|
|17. The Shooting Game||62|
|18. Hippo and Baboon||65|
|19. Bottled Up||71|
|20. Baba Yaga||74|
|22. Keeping Calm||81|
|23. Half Bulldog, Half Chihuahua||84|
|24. Exorcising the Exorcist||86|
|26. Mama's Little Baby||94|
|27. Puppy Power||98|
|28. The Baby Business||103|
|29. The Finger||108|
|30. The Car Race||111|
|31||A Cold Duckling, a School Shooting, and a Home for a|
|32. Placing Blame||117|
|34. A Big, Big Teacher||125|