After casting my ballot on Election Day, I took my two young daughters and my father, who was visiting from Wisconsin, to Walden Pond. It was a sunny fall day, unseasonably warm for November in Massachusetts. We splashed and played and collected stones, and as I watched my girls run free on the sand, I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism and peace, knowing that they were going to grow up in a world where finally, finally, the bullies and the bigots don’t win.
Only, the bigoted bully did win. And that day at the pond is now etched into my mind as the last time I truly felt hopeful for the world my kids would inherit.
Which brings me to the person who introduced many of us to Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau is perhaps best known for his writings about natural history and living simply. His journals, detailing seasonal change, have helped scientists figure out how a changing climate is pushing our lilacs and blueberries and wood sorrel to bloom earlier than they had a century ago.
Thoreau also was an abolitionist and, on occasion, an open critic of the government. He famously spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay a specific tax, the poll tax, which all men at the time were required to pay.
It wasn’t that he didn’t think people should pay taxes—he believed they serve a purpose when used for the public good. But he also believed the proceeds from the poll tax would both fund a war he did not support and expand slavery in the South. Frankly, I wouldn’t have paid that tax, either.
These days, I take my kids to Walden Pond on a regular basis. They’re on a first-name basis with Henry. My oldest daughter has fallen in love with a book about Henry and is thirsty to know more. We’ve talked at length about his walks in the woods, his careful attention to nature, the town he lived in, the journals he kept.
We haven’t talked about his passion for civil disobedience. Yet.
While reading the book the night after the election, I came to the final page where the author quotes several of Thoreau’s better-known sayings, and loosely interprets them in language a seven-year-old can relate to.
“If you have castles built in the air,” I read to her, “put the foundations under them.”
I asked her if she understood what that meant. Together, we read the words in italics below the quote.
“If you have dreams, work hard and make them come true.”
“But Mommy,” she said, tearfully. “We did work hard and my dream didn’t come true.”
She meant, of course, the dream of seeing Hillary Clinton in the White House.
And I thought, I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say, well, this is part of the election process; you win some and you lose some. No, I wanted to offer her more, to say, sometimes, working hard means doing what you can to speak up about injustice, to challenge those whose ideas not only conflict with yours but potentially put others in harm’s way.
I said, “That dream is still out there, and it means we have to work even harder.” But it pained me to say this, because the conciliatory tone I took belied the anger welling inside of me. Not just over this election, the second in less than twenty years in which the candidate who won the popular vote lost the presidency. No, I also was angry at the model I was showing her, of accepting something you know to be wrong, but feeling helpless in the face of it—something no seven-year-old should even be asked to understand.
Or should she? When is the right time to teach children about civil disobedience, about peaceful protest in the face of wrongdoing? How should we teach our kids to stand up for what’s right and speak out against what’s wrong when they’re also expected to follow rules and guidelines?
I don’t know the answer to this, but tonight, I’ll be reading to her from another kids’ book about Thoreau, this one with a chapter dedicated to the idea of civil disobedience. It talks about Thoreau’s ideals and how he inspired future civil rights champions, such as Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. But my favorite thing about this book is that it includes activities for kids and families.
The chapter about civil disobedience offers guidance about volunteering with local charities and writing letters to news editors or elected officials. That feels manageable, and it also feels like something we should already be teaching our kids to do. It also gives me a way to move forward, to show what it means to put action behind words. So tonight, after we read, we will roll up our sleeves and, as Michelle Obama asked us all to do in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, get to work.
Science writer Jenny Cutraro lives and works not far from Walden Pond.
Photo taken at Walden Pond by Flickr user Ammitamba. Creative Commons.