“My God Is Better Than Your God!” (Or, Applying the Lessons Learned from a 20th-Century First-Grade Bickering Match to the World of 2018)

For the most part, Anita and I got along.  She lived just up the road from me, and we went to the same school.  In first grade, we were paired as deskmates in Mrs. Northrup’s class.  Mrs. Northrup was known to be an old-school, no-nonsense teacher, so on the first day of class, Anita and I resolved to work together and try to get through the grind with honors.

It went well for about a month.  Then, on a sparkling October morning, Mrs. Northrup came to class bearing gifts, and doling out treats.  Cookies!  Home-baked!  She told us she was pleased so far with the progress of the class, and this was a small way of showing her appreciation–though she did issue a warning, along with the sweets: “I expect each of you to keep up the good work,” she said, her thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose as she looked out over the room.  “Let’s not get sloppy and forget why we’re here—to learn.”  Anita looked at me and smiled, then rolled her eyes. Just give me my cookie, her eye roll said, loud and clear.

 

I wasn’t going to poke holes in that logic.  It sounded good to me.  And I indeed wolfed down three cookies, in rapid succession.  I ate so fast, I’d made something of a mess, so I licked the tip of my index finger and used it to pick up the rogue crumbs that had scattered over my half of the desk; then I licked the crumbs clear off my finger.  All done.

 

That’s when I realized Anita was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not right,” she said.  She looked genuinely upset.  Meanwhile, all around us, our classmates chewed and laughed and talked, while Mrs. Northrup kept glancing at the clock high on the wall at the back of the room.  I kept expecting her to break in and say, “Cookies down, books open!”  But so far, she just stood there, waiting.  She didn’t eat any of the cookies herself.

 

Truth be told, I almost wished she would announce the cookie party was over.  That way, maybe, we could get back to work and Anita would stop glaring at me.

“What is it?” I asked her again.  “What isn’t right?”

“Your fingers,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust.  “You licked them!”

“So?”

“So,” she said, as if addressing a one-year-old, “you aren’t supposed to lick your fingers.  That’s what napkins are for.”  Here, she held up her napkin.  Indeed, I had one, too.  Mrs. Northrup had made sure each student had one.  “It’s just wrong using your fingers like that.  It’s a sin.”

 

A sin?  I knew Anita belonged to a different religion–Jehovah’s Witness.  She was the only Jehovah’s Witness in the class—and she never participated in holiday celebrations or birthdays.  I remembered feeling bad for her the previous year, during kindergarten, off by herself while the rest of us played and ate and had fun.  But I’d never talked to her about it.  Until now.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “It’s a sin to be sloppy and disgusting.  And that’s what you just were!  Is that what they teach you in your church?”

My church growing up was Catholic.  But I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, and surely never thought twice about licking my fingers!

 

“I always knew it,” she said.  “My God is better than your God.”

“What?” I said.  And then I told her she was wrong.  My God was better than hers; she had it backward.

We went at it for a couple of minutes, neither of us yielding or giving an inch.  We raised our voices.  Anita stuck her tongue out.  So did I.

Suddenly, there was the sound of someone clearing her throat. Mrs. Northrup.  She was standing beside our desk, a scowl on her face.

“If the two of you feel the need to yell and act like toddlers, I think you can do that just as well in the hall.”  And with that, she kicked us out of the classroom.

“Regular class resumes in five minutes,” she told us.  “You work out your differences in the hall, and then I’ll collect you when it’s time.  And when I do, you better behave.  Do you both understand?”

We did.  Mrs. Northrup was not to be trifled with.

Mrs. Northrup’s classroom was at the end of the hall, and there was a bay window there, below which sat an old radiator, a clunky monstrosity—presently not running—that appeared as though it had been installed decades prior.  But it was positioned directly under the bay window at the end of the hall—an inviting perch.  Anita and I hopped up, sat on the sill above it, the sunshine streaming through the window warming our backs.

 

We just sat there, swinging our feet.  Ahead of us, the hallway was empty, just a dull-gray floor lined with closed classroom doors.  Even the janitor, old Mr. Roberts, was nowhere to be seen.

 

I felt bad.  I think Anita did, too.  I felt stupid.  What a stupid fight!  And then I just said something—I can’t remember what, and we talked.  About small things, little things . . . and yet everything.  The animosity that had existed between us mere minutes ago was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the rising warmth.  And when Mrs. Northrup emerged from our classroom five minutes later, punctual as always, Anita and I quietly followed her in and went to our desk.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, and the weeks and months beyond, Anita and I had no more run-ins, no more shouting matches.  We never openly apologized to each other.  We didn’t have to.

But the next time we had cookies, I was sure to use my napkin.

******************************

In some ways, that experience I shared with Anita so many Octobers ago, before the advent of smartphones or digital tablets or Netflix, seems inconsequential—just a couple of little kids fighting about something neither of them understood.  But then, as I reexamine it, turn it over in my mind, suddenly there is a larger theme afoot.

 

When she brought up “her God,” and I rebutted with “my God,” the two of us were instantly polarized.  There was no middle ground to be found in those tense moments when we bickered, cookies on our breath.  She was in her corner.  I was in mine.  And we were determined to prove who was right and who was wrong.  This polarization, this us-against-them mind-set, also summarizes much of what we’re seeing in the world today.  Certainly, in the United States, fellow Americans are at each other’s throats.  Sure, there has always been division and discord, animosity and open, outright hostility.  This is not new.  But the extent of the division, the vitriol, the tribalism that has emerged and thrived in recent years is as widespread as it is alarming.

 

Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  I have strong views on the matter, and surely, so do you.  But a big part of the problem is the growing, yawning gap between us.  All you have to do to see the ugliness, the hate, the anger is log onto Twitter or Facebook, or watch a Senate hearing, or listen to a rally.  Longtime journalist and Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has described what is presently going on in America as a “cold civil war,” and I believe he is right.

 

But how do we remedy this?  Is there a way to repair the damage, to bridge the gap, and to bring back a means for intelligent, respectful civil discourse? Perhaps a place to start is to realize we have much in common, whether we want to admit it or not, and to endeavor to see our “opponents” not so much as enemies as fellow human beings.  This is where first-graders seem to have more understanding than adults.  Yes, Anita and I, all those years ago, engaged in a childish, fact-free argument.  Again, tune in to the cable news or social media, and you will find we adults are often no better or wiser, and often far worse.  But what Anita and I were able to do was transcend the moment.  When we were ushered into the hall, we didn’t continue to debate.  We didn’t try to one-up each other.  We just sat there and talked; we remembered our friendship, the things that we shared as opposed to the things that divided us, and we moved on.  Perhaps it was easier because we were children.  Perhaps when you’re five or six years old, the essentials in life, the things that matter, are not always so hidden or locked away behind bars of prejudices or hatreds or grudges or polemical ideologies.

 

Perhaps the kids—both the kids of today, as well as the kids we ourselves used to be—have a lot they can teach us.

*************************

Anita and I continued on in school together straight through graduation.  She was my deskmate again, seven grades later, in our junior-high Earth Science class the day The Challenger space shuttle exploded.  And a few years ago, we met at a high school reunion.  It was the first time we’d caught up with each other since our senior year.  But the words flowed easily, as we talked and laughed and reminisced.

Not once did we discuss whose God was better than whose.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

********************************

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

*******************************

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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