Thursday, September 27, 2012

Where were we?

*trigger warning: gender-based violence, rape, genocide, and other stuff of heartbreak.

In 1994 I used to line up my stuffed animals on the stairs of my house and teach them. I'd repeat whatever lesson I had learned in school earlier that day, assign homework, and do this homework myself for each stuffed animal, even making deliberate mistakes on the homework of animals I liked less. I'd then proceed to correct this homework with a red pen and put stickers on the tests of my favorite students. The panda was an excellent scholar; the skunk less so.

This is the kind of story that belongs on an application essay to graduate school in education, as evidence of my life-long desire to be a teacher, even though this is no such essay and I am (still) notoriously uncomfortable around children. This is the kind of cautionary tale you share with aspiring parents so they do not "space out their child-bearing" too much. So that their next oldest sibling is not 30 when they are 10, and so they do not end up teaching rabbits the properties of double-digit addition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 18 years later, the stuff of building curricula and implementing workshops still exhilarates me. I am a giddy learner, an unapologetic dork. I smile at my readings in graduate school... at least until the amount of vicarious trauma registers with me, until I realize that everything I read exposes some fabric of human tragedy, suffering, conflict, and products of hatred.

In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda determined that systematic war rape was a war weapon and an element of the genocide. Around the same time that I was teaching panda bears and rabbits elementary mathematics, between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped in Rwanda. The rate of HIV infection reached 70%. Many of these rapes were public, as it became acceptable -- or in some cases mandatory -- to watch a woman get raped.

My Wednesday night consisted of filling Post-It notes with enough dark statistics to blur the line between learning and heartbreak. Delving deeply into these concepts is warping my sense of time. Where were we in 1994? Why was I playing teacher when rape of women and girls of my age at the time reached a preposterous enough threshold to be considered a genocidal weapon? How can borders shelter us so perfectly and completely? How could I have been so tucked away into an imaginary universe when these events were unfolding a few hours south of me?

My father raised me with a consciousness of the world beyond our bubble. I was a toddler at the fall of the Berlin Wall and I remember his pointing at our black-and-white TV. I do not remember what was happening, or why it was significant, but I remember his pointing and telling me to "remember this moment" because it was important. I remember Bosnia and Kosovo, I remember his explaining war to me. But genocide was beyond my grasp. I had no idea these would be the themes that would resurface later in my life, first as subjects of academic interest and later as the work that would fuel me.

I am old enough to "know" now, though I am not sure any heart or mind can fully wrap itself around cruelty. I cannot tolerate knowing about mass atrocities any better than I could then; I am simply "old enough" for nobody to hide this facet of the world from me, for nobody to feel a need to protect me from it. I think about the future and having my own children (if I ever get over my debilitating fear of them). How does a woman whose life is so defined by conflict -- hopefully on the understanding and alleviating its effects end of the spectrum, rather than the perpetrating and forgetting end -- raise children who are blissfully protected from it? How can I talk to my hypothetical, future children about fall and pumpkin spice tea and panda bears and the other components of my current bliss while knowing about the parallel universes of cruelty and injustice?

When I studied the history and literature of conflict as an undergraduate, I was protected by virtue of the function of time. The Holocaust happened then, and this is why and how, and this is what "we" "did" "in response", and this is how "we" are trying for something "like that" not to happen "ever again." I wrote papers in the past tense. I rarely typed the sentence "the impact of this has yet to be determined" or "the effects of this are not yet fully understood." But Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Kosovo, Haiti... They all "happened" in my lifetime. How can a world hold my ten-year-old self and panda bears and how can that same world hold systematic rape of a genocidal scale?

Where was I then? Where were we?

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