Irony in Grade Four

My nine-year-old daughter’s two favorite words this school year have been "sarcastic" and "ironic." Sarcasm was fairly easy to master—after all, most children’s television programming is brimming with it. After a few astute questions on her part and apprehensive caveats from me, she moved with astonishing speed into the knowing lingua franca of fourth graders. She also learned the requisite use of index-finger-middle-finger "air quotes" to underscore when she deemed it necessary to demonstrate her application of sarcasm in action.

Irony has proven to be a more elusive concept. I would try to provide examples that might trigger her understanding. But when I asked, "Does that make sense, Joanna?" her usual reply was "No."

We had a breakthrough a few weeks ago when she showed me her social studies homework. A white sheet of construction paper was folded neatly into four parts with pictures in each quadrant. She had struggled with these pictures and apologized the way some children do when they announce they cannot draw the image in question. I was surprised at her illustrations, so I inquired what her assignment had been. "We are studying democracy, and my assignment was to draw pictures of the armed forces. I can’t think of the last one." She had the Army, Marines, and Air Force covered. She had forgotten the Navy. I reminded her that Naval officers commandeered ships of many kinds, and unlike the other three branches of military, the Navy had sailors rather than soldiers. I was curious whether she had chosen this topic for herself, or whether it had been given to her. Evidently, each student had been randomly assigned a separate topic by the teacher. After a beat, I asked hopefully, "What is ironic about this, Joanna?" "Well," she said, "we’re Quakers." I was torn between revisiting Quaker philosophy in view of her homework or letting the moment ride. I chose to state simply, "Yes, it is ironic, isn’t it?"

Fast forward a few weeks. Jo brought home a handout providing information about a special collection that each classroom was undertaking. At her school, kindergarteners through fifth graders were bringing items from a comprehensive list of packaged foods, supplies, and personal grooming needs for "their" soldiers in Iraq. The soldier that Joanna’s class had adopted belonged to a troop stationed in Germany that was waiting to be sent to Iraq. His mother worked in Food Service at the school. One of the school’s teachers had been this young man’s first grade teacher 12 years before.

My immediate responses to the items on the list were varied and contradictory, generous and cranky. I wanted to send everything I saw. I wondered why many of the items on the list were not guaranteed to them already. (Sunblock? Bug spray?) I wondered why some items even appeared at all. (Balloons?) What was I missing here? I wondered, once again, why we were there at all. At the college where I teach, I have frequently tried to make the distinction for my students that in our society we can support our troops in Iraq without supporting the war. If I have made any converts, I am unaware. My experience since the beginning of the war has been preaching to a sea of skeptics—students earnestly concerned about "freedom" and "democracy." Is it just my imagination that they believe my earnestness about those seminal U.S. values pales against the colors of our flag—or the yellow ribbon stickers that punctuate the traffic in our small town?

When Joanna and I talked about our shopping excursion to purchase things for her soldier, I had a similar teaching opportunity, one that I pray will be more profitable: as Quakers, we do not support war, but we can hold these soldiers in the Light and help make their time in the Middle East as comfortable as possible. We can make their days easier and bring them some cheer.

Before my daughter and I left the house, we considered what we might send. Joanna was concerned that her soldier would have enough food. High on her list were canned goods. My concern was personal hygiene. The list gave no indications as to preferences in grooming items, brands, or flavors. We were flying blind.

Our trips to the grocery store and to our superstore-of-choice netted us a couple of items in each category on the list. We were able to reach a Quaker consensus on a number of things after considerable discussion. (Our most fervent disagreement centered on canned dinners. I was concerned with their weight and transport—both on the way to Iraq and once they were in his possession. These exchanges alone taught me how little I know about soldiers’ everyday lives on the ground.) Our contributions to the soldier’s box in Room 110? Instant oatmeal. (Quaker Oats, as it happened. Plain, we decided; he might not like our choice of fruit.) An oversized bag of Twizzlers. (After much debate, we agreed that regular strawberry Twizzlers would be preferable to the chocolate or rainbow variety—and more likely to be shared among his fellow soldiers.) Medicated body powder. (The kind with triple-action relief!) A three-color 12-pack of 100-percent cotton washcloths. (Something I would appreciate.) Toothpaste and a double-pack of toothbrushes. (Both blue. Soft bristle, of course.) I insisted on sending him plastic storage bags in a couple of sizes. (Double-zip for extra precaution.) Plastic bandages. (This decision sparked a noteworthy conversation about the relative benefits of having more bandages versus fewer heavy-duty ones on hand. We chose large, heavy-duty, brand-name bandages. Joanna said it just seemed like the right thing to do, under the circumstances.)

I have to say that this shopping trip—coming when it did, at the age she was, for the reasons we had—prompted some of our most fruitful discussions as a mother and daughter team. I wondered to what extent I should talk about the dangers of being in Iraq. As a fifth grader, I had two older brothers in the Air Force in Southeast Asia. My parents, always apolitical even during the Vietnam War, never mentioned their being in harm’s way. What I knew about the perils of that war I learned from the correspondent Morley Safer. Like thousands of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East, this painfully young man will soon be receiving letters from children he does not personally know. One of those children will be my daughter. Learning to hold this soldier in the Light—an intangible, yet vibrant reality for Quakers—is an important, yet risky, endeavor. If anything happens to this soldier, Joanna will experience his loss in a tangible way. Our family landscape may change once again.

Nine years ago, my husband and I adopted Joanna from South Korea. At 44, I had only been a mother for a few weeks when a student advisee came into my office to talk about some difficulty she was having that spring. I don’t recall what was troubling the young woman, but I do remember how I felt when she walked into my office and sat down across from me. This is what passed through my mind, "My daughter is hundreds of miles away, a college sophomore, or maybe still in her first year. Something is on her mind, and she needs counsel from an adult she trusts—or perhaps is just learning to trust. How will this advisor respond? As a mother, how do I want her to respond?"

From that moment on, I would like to think I became a better advisor, a more focused listener, someone more trustworthy, less likely to judge, more likely to appear unhurried—even when that is not the case at all. The moment brought together for me the tangible and the intangible of Quaker experience. I can respond to the Light in each of my students in a tangible way by regarding them as if they are my own. I know, I know—this sounds suspiciously like the Golden Rule. Even though I had taught elementary school, middle school, and college for many years, I had never experienced my students viscerally as a mother does. The difference was clear to me in a heartbeat—a silent annunciation, of sorts. Individuals may believe this parental feeling is extraneous to being a good teacher, but it changed me for the better.

I have two soldiers to pray for in Iraq—the son of a friend who left this week for Baghdad to fly Apache helicopters, and Joanna’s soldier. They are now my sons. So far, I have prayed over the war in Iraq in a vague, "Lord help us all" manner. My prayers, I am afraid, were mitigated by my anger against the George W. Bush administration—prayers thoughtlessly, perhaps conveniently, diluted by my disaffection. I must see events as opportunities to become a more compassionate mother; a discerning Quaker; a focused, gracious listener; an individual even more trustworthy, less likely to judge, more likely to be unhurried in prayer, more specific as I beseech the Divine, and less taken with the ironic political commentary of the times.

Jeanine M. Dell'Olio

Jeanine M. Dell'Olio, a member of Holland (Mich.) Meeting, is a professor in the Education Dept. at Hope College in Holland.