Saturday, November 04, 2006

Stone Soup

Every year I have taught in my own classroom, I do a unit on Stone Soup. For those unfamiliar, Stone Soup is a classic tale about three hungry soldiers coming home from war. As they make the arduous journey home, they come upon a village and ask the peasants for food and a place to sleep. The villagers are quite concerned about having to share with the soldiers and after hiding all their food, explain they have little enough for themselves. The clever soldiers declare they will help everyone by making stone soup. Upon filling a pot with water and stones and starting a fire ablaze, the soldiers say, "Oh, this soup is good, but it would be much better with a bit of salt and pepper..." Many other ingredients are added in the same way. Each time, the villagers bring vegetables and other soup ingredients to make the soup better. In the end, the peasants and the soldiers have a wonderful feast together. The soldiers are treated as honored guests rather than a pesky imposition. Lesson plans always encourage the teacher to explain how the soldiers tricked the villagers into sharing.

I love the story. We always do activities surrounding the story. We define vocabulary words and explore measurement using cups, teaspoons, etc. And, of course, we talk about the underlying moral of the story. We review the importance of sharing. We talk about how the soup is like our classroom... It is better because each of us bring a unique and important ingredient to our group. We talk about sharing ourselves with each other. We even talk about fear and hoarding, and how these things hinder prosperity. Always during the course of the unit, we make stone soup. It is usually very tasty, but this year it was particularly delicious. I think I enjoyed it more because this year, one of my students taught me a poignant lesson.

We began the lesson by defining some important vocabulary words. One of our words was soldiers. Before we look up the definitions, I ask that the students give me a definition in their own words. A student I will call Elliot raised his hand, sat up straight and tall, and declared, "Soldiers are people who work together..." At this point he stammered a little and lost his confidence. I deal with that a lot when a student has a learning challenge. They aren't confident in their abilities and their knowledge. So, I said, "Yes... Go on..." He began again, "Soldiers are people who work together to kill other people." I'm sure the look on my face was unreadable. For just a moment, it felt as if the world had stopped in the classroom. I quickly regained my composure and said, "Elliot, some people would probably have a problem with your definition, but you are absolutely right. In fact, your words are so important to me, I'm going to write them down to keep for myself. I may write something on my blog to share with everyone."

I'm not political. I always vote, but I really don't like to vote. I have never actually felt as if I was endorsing a candidate I fully believed in. In fact, in local elections, sometimes I don't even know the candidates for whom I'm casting a ballot. It's actually a little embarrassing. Perhaps I should be more informed. Sometimes, I really exert the effort to educate myself, but here, they always throw in a strange one... "Vote for the New Coroner." How on earth am I supposed to know who would make the very best coroner? Some things shouldn't be a vote. A committee of persons educated in such matters should be handling that bit of hiring. Still, when elections come around, I go vote. I cast my ballot. I wear the little sticker all day. I do the deal. When my girls were young, I took them with me. I talked about the importance of living in a democratic country. I sang on high about voting and how we live in a wonderful country in which we are allowed to vote. Other people in the world don't have that right.

Then somehow my right to vote, ties in with the ugly fact that people died so that I could live in a free country. People died so that I might stumble into the booth and vote for a coroner that I don't know and hope I don't need for a long time... People died... "Soldiers are people who work together to kill other people..." People got mad about a king in England taxing them. Money is a powerful motivator. People were outraged that their feelings weren't being considered. They dumped some tea into a harbor and set about fighting for their rights. It was a revolution... Soldiers worked together to kill other people... People died... Southerners later developed the nasty habit of buying and selling other people based on skin color.... These people were required to work on plantations and weren't treated well in some cases. It was a travesty. It was wrong. The south still hasn't fully recovered in many respects. Other people knew it was wrong, but I can tell you for a fact that in the south, we don't like to be told what to do. In the south, we said, "Forget you... We don't have to be a part of your silly country... We'll make our own country." Some people here still think they are in that separate country... It was a civil war. Soldiers worked together to kill other people... People died... America became a land of prosperity... Our economics affect other countries. In America, individuals have a right to pursue happiness. We began to be a beacon of light for those without hope... We had such a gift, this freedom... We had such a wonderful thing... Democracy... It seemed only right we should share our gift with the world. Surely, all people have a right to be free. Other wars were fought on this premise. America must be the champion for the weak, the oppressed, the down-trodden... People worked together to kill other people all over the world... In other countries... Sometimes for causes that were gallantly noble. People died...

As I type this, people are working together to kill other people. People are dying... Why? I don't think anyone really can give a sufficient answer. Some people try to tie this war to "my freedom"... "Soldiers are dying for your freedom," they say... The bad guys crashed planes into our towers. They attacked our country. The "evil-doers" are trying to interfere with "our way of life". North Korea is getting nukes. We can have nukes, but other people shouldn't have them. Other people are crazy. We're in danger. SOLDIERS ARE PEOPLE WHO WORK TOGETHER TO KILL OTHER PEOPLE. People are dying...

A red flyer showed up in my box a couple of weeks ago. The flyer asked people to wear red on Fridays as a sign of support to our troops overseas. I support our troops. I come from a family of military men and women. I know first hand the sacrifices they make. However, I also don't like to be told what to do and when to do it. I didn't like the idea that someone might think if I don't wear red on Fridays, I don't support my troops. However, rather than keeping these ideas to myself, I spouted them off to my dear friend, Billy. He probably shook his head and said to himself, "That crazy Maxwell... She has a screw loose." That's just his way. I later learned by accident that the flyer actually came from Billy. I felt terrible. I don't know his personal family situation. But, I know that people are dying. And, I know that I care very much whether that has affected my friend in any way at all. If it is important to him, it is important to me. I'll wear red on Fridays. But, now it has taken on more meaning for me. "Soldiers are people who work together to kill other people." People are dying... People have died... In the larger scheme of things, I don't understand it.

And, I'm really sad about that today. I'm really sad that I can't see the value in a war that no longer has anything to do with my right to get into a booth and vote for a coroner I don't know. I'm sad that I can't even buy into the fact that this war has anything to do with the towers that fell. There's even a country song out that tried to convince me that is the reason we are at war. I'm sad that as a society, we largely don't value each other's individual beliefs and differences. I'm sad that there aren't any easy answers. But, I know for sure that whatever the question, love is the answer...

You see... that is what Stone Soup is all about... LOVE... The villagers were afraid... They were afraid there wouldn't be enough for themselves. They were afraid that by sharing what they had, they wouldn't have enough... Interestingly, sharing doesn't work that way. When people share, each one walks away better for the experience. Even when one person sets out to take advantage of another, lessons can be learned that better the future of everyone involved. The soldiers tricked the villagers into sharing... The soldiers tricked the villagers into loving. Love is a verb, an action word. Perhaps if we can each add a bit of our true selves to the soup of life, we could really make a delicious soup. Maybe soldiers could evolve from being "people who work together to kill other people" into "people who work together to trick people into loving each other"... I'm sure in some instances, that is exactly what our troops may be doing. I'm wearing red for those soldiers on Fridays... I'm hoping that in my little way, I can trick people into loving each other.

"Many thanks to you," the people said, "for we shall never go hungry now that you have taught us how to make soup from stones!"