The callous murders of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-olds in England, of a French vagrant by three boys ranging in age from 8 to 10 years old, and of a cab driver by a 13-year-old girl in the United States offer a devastating indictment of modern Western society. If the perpetrators had been adults, we could all shake our heads, say that each had made his own bed and must lie in it, and, with untroubled conscience, lock them away forever.
But children? What ever happened to the innocence of children, and, after all, aren’t children innately good? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they’re not. As any parents of a small child can tell you, children are self-centered, impatient, frustrated creatures who have to be taught good behavior and manners in dealing with the outside world. Indeed, I believe that children are born with both good and bad inside them, part Dr. Jekyll and part Mr. Hyde, and that it is the role of parents and society to nurture the good and discourage the bad elements in their nature. What is so profoundly disturbing is how the family, church, school, et al. completely failed to nurture the children-turned-killers.
Does it really matter anyway? In this world of disposable containers, I believe we have come to accept disposable children. As long as they are not our children, we tell ourselves, what happens to them doesn’t affect us. Except that children who never learn to become members of society don’t biodegradably decompose; they come back to rebel against us.
Consider the case of Helen Keller (1880-1968) who, 19 months after birth, was left deaf and blind by illness. Proof positive that children are not innately good, Helen was a fierce-tempered, raging beast. How easy it would have been to discard her by placing her in an institution.
Enter one Anne Sullivan (1866-1936), bound and determined to tame her 6-year-old charge and make her a productive member of society. “Teacher,” as Helen came to call Sullivan, didn’t do too bady either. Helen went on to learn three types of Braille and numerous foreign languages, to graduate with honors from Radcliffe College, to write eight books—starting with her autobiography at age 22—and to speak to and inspire people around the world.
Following are excerpts from Anne Sullivan’s letters to the Perkins Institute, from which she graduated shortly before going to work with Helen.
Tuscumbia, Alabama, March 11, 1887
“Since I wrote you, Helen and I have gone to live all by ourselves in a little garden house about a quarter of a mile from her home, only a short distance from Ivy Green, the Keller homestead.
“I very soon made up my mind that I could do nothing with Helen in the midst of the family, who have always allowed her to do exactly as she pleased. She has tyrannized over everybody…and nobody had ever seriously disputed her will, except occasionally her brother James, until I came; and like all tyrants she holds tenaciously to her divine right to do as she pleases.
“I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child…
“She devoted herself to her dolls the first evening [in the garden house], and when it was bedtime she undressed very quietly; but when she felt me get into bed with her, she jumped out on the other side, and nothing that I could do would induce her to get in again.
“But I was afraid she would take cold, and I insisted that she must go to bed. We had a terrific tussle, I can tell you.
“The struggle lasted for nearly two hours. I never saw such strength and endurance in a child. But fortunately for us both, I am a little stronger, and quite as obstinate when I set out. I finally succeeded in getting her on the bed and covered her up, and she lay curled up as near the edge of the bed as possible.”
March 20, 1887
“My heart is singing for joy this morning. A miracle has happened! The light of undertanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed!
“The wild little creature of two weeks ago has been transformed into a gentle child. She is sitting by me as I write, her face serene and happy, crocheting a long red chain of Scotch wool. She learned the stitch this week, and is very proud of the achievement.
“When she succeeded in making a chain that would reach across the room, she patted herself on the arm and put the first work of her hands lovingly against her cheek…The great step—the step that counts—has been taken.
“The little savage has learned her first lesson in obedience, and finds the yoke easy. It now remains my pleasant task to direct and mould the beautiful intelligence that is beginning to stir in the child-soul.”
As a society, we can decide to devote the tremendous amount of time and money necessary to nurture all our children, or, as is currently the case, channel our energy and resources toward work, our own private pursuits, and certain children, then pay the social consequences.
Surely I have no responsibility for other people’s children, some my counter. Perhaps not, but keep in mind that Sullivan and Keller were not biologically related.
Donna Nielsen Murphy, "Bless the beasts, and the children," Irondequoit Press, December 15, 1994. A version of this article also appeared in Georgetown Magazine, Spring/Summer 1994.