Stopping the Battle

I’ve always had principles. But like any teenager’s principles, they’re a bit vague and wishy-washy. I wear a jacket covered with political buttons and I listen to the music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. I write my opinions down on paper, but it’s rare that I’m sufficiently motivated to carry them far enough to effect any real change. In fact, I can think of only one time in my life of seventeen years that I did so. I let “Give Peace a Chance” become more than a rhythmically monotonous strum pattern and actually walked the walk.

It is summer in one of the primary school classrooms of Arbor Montessori School. I am six years old and I am thrilled because summer camp this session takes the theme of “Camp Castle.” All the boys take turns being king for the day, and the girls take turns being queen. There are fancy dresses and hats, authentically medieval bread and cheese for snack, and a large cardboard castle.

On the first day of Camp Castle, the procedure over the two-week session is outlined. If you, the humble serf of Camp Castle, perform a certain number of chivalrous deeds over the course of the session, you will be promoted through the anachronistically egalitarian system to the rank of knight. You will be accorded a plastic breastplate, shield and helmet, and you will fight against other knights come the end of the session and the last apocalyptic battle.

Maybe the teachers aren’t absolutely clear. Maybe I’m just not paying attention, off in my own little world as usual. But I assume that only the knights will be rewarded with the culminating bloodbath. At six years old, I am more passionately anti-war than I have ever been. But I believe it doesn’t concern me, so I stick rigidly to a self-interested behavior pattern and say nothing.

As this foreshadowing might suggest, however, the final conflict comes to concern me very much. It is the last day of Camp Castle. We are seated in a circle on the floor. I am, as is necessary for this to be a classic episode of my childhood, very much off on an imaginative flight of fancy. I am not paying attention. And then a cardboard dagger is dropped in my lap, crudely cut out and colored in purple Crayola marker. I slowly come to my senses and hand it back to the boy distributing them. He presses it on me, insistently. Everyone has to have one, he says. This is my instrument of death.

I don’t pick up the cardboard toy; it sits in front of me and I stare at it, transfixed. The teacher starts to explain the rules of the conflict, but I am not listening. I find myself standing up, and I don’t really even know why. I am not, as I recall, much taller standing than I am sitting, but my action is noticeable. Calling on me is unavoidable, and so I speak. I say that I feel betrayed. War is wrong, end of story; I will accept no opposing arguments. I do not understand why the teachers would condone this battle and I do not understand why I was handed a purple cardboard dagger. I say this, and then I sit down, not understanding why I am being conscripted as Montessori-school cannon fodder. I am crying.

I am not aware of what must have been hurried, whispered discussion between the teachers, but I am yanked from further reverie by the news that the battle will not occur. I am not joyful; this is not a victory. It is only as it should be, and I am still hurt that violence was even considered. The rest of the day, though, is passed in peace.

My parents come to collect me, and the teachers tell them what I have said and done. So do I, between righteous sobs. My parents are proud that I have stood up for my beliefs. Once I am over the shock, so am I. I draw a picture of the event in first-grade art class.

I continue to gloat about this one occasion. I relate it for an assignment in eighth grade, I joke about it when I tell stories of my childhood. But never again do I protest against war or resist the draft. My only act of civil disobedience was before I entered first grade.

Perhaps it is true, what they say about teenage apathy. It is certainly shameful to think that a girl of six could have more courage and integrity than a girl of seventeen. Sometimes it is necessary to discard self-consciousness and apprehension, throw caution to the wind and let words pour out without checking their flow. When all is said and done, we must stand up and do whatever we can to uphold our principles. Perhaps now I am sometimes a coward. But I upheld my principles eleven years ago in Camp Castle, when I stopped the battle.