“I don’t think there’s going to be a world in ten years,” my student said mournfully, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Yeah, me neither,” said the boy sitting in the next row, slumping a little lower than his usual slump.
My English classes had just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a novel published in 1957, twelve years after the United States bombed Japan to hasten the end of World War II. Two years later, Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of the novel as the handsome American captain who had brought his nuclear submarine to the coast of Australia as the radiation fallout slowly drifted south. In the narrative, no life remains north of the earth’s equator, and the inhabitants of Australia know that their days are numbered.
In the real world—the one my students and I inhabited in the early 1980s—humanity lived in terror, and the arms race dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers. After that first class discussion, I grew to recognize the fear in some students’ eyes and the resignation in others’. I asked my students whether they shared Shute’s view of our ultimate demise. Few of them believed that they would grow up and fall in love—or even live long enough to go to college and pursue their dreams. I assured them our leaders would find a way to harness our power to destroy, though I was 25 years old and shared their anxiety.
Many of those students wrote arguments about banning all nuclear weapons and felt angry when their arguments, along with a growing movement in our country, fell on deaf ears. Those students would now be almost 50, and I wonder if they ever think about those days, that novel, our discussions. You wouldn’t find Shute’s book in most high school book rooms now. The science is inaccurate and the story somewhat maudlin.
A nuclear weapon in the hands of our own military seemed far less dangerous in the wake of September 11, two weeks after we offered a temporary home to a 25-year-old teacher who had moved to Maryland from a small town in Illinois. Our daughter was a sophomore in high school, the same age as the students I taught when I was 25. By 9/11, I had been teaching almost 25 years, and I had never seen anything like the chaos of that day, when students, many of whose parents worked in D.C., found out that the Pentagon had been attacked. There weren’t enough phones in the building for all the hysterical students and staff to make phone calls to their loved ones—so many that we couldn’t even get calls out on the jammed lines.
Just as we were learning to breathe again the following fall, October 2002, we suffered terror of another kind when, for three weeks, a sniper randomly attacked innocent people going about their lives. Most of the attacks happened within five miles of our home. My mother had been visiting from Richmond, and the last attack occurred the day my husband drove my mother to Fredericksburg to meet my brother from Richmond—at the very exit the sniper chose. They sat for hours in the snarled traffic on Interstate 95 while, at home, we waited for news.
That young teacher, who had her own apartment by then, often stayed at our home during the crises of her first years in Maryland, and she wondered whether she had been wise to abandon the safety of a small town in the Midwest for the dangers of our nation’s capital. My fears—my students’ fears—of nuclear fall-out seemed almost laughable when I looked into that young teacher’s eyes, into my daughter’s eyes, and tried to breathe deeply enough to assuage their alarm that the world had gone mad.
Today, the arms race we started is rarely fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. Occasionally we read an article about the danger of a rogue nation, like Iran, being close to having a nuclear weapon, but, for the most part, our demons are different. Somehow, our leaders have managed to get a grip on the fear that plagued us when I was a young adult. We still have a nuclear arsenal, and while we worry about rogue nations, we haven’t let that fear loom so large that we are paralyzed by it.
And though September 11 has shaped our character as a nation, we have even found ways to address our vulnerability to make it less likely, though never impossible, for such an attack to happen again.
Yet, still, we fear. We fear the next mentally ill man who will storm into a school and kill our children. We fear radical extremists who are willing to strap bombs to their own bodies and become human explosives, decimating everyone in the crowded areas they choose for what they consider a glorious death. We fear even our own people, citizens who feel they need assault rifles to protect themselves.
We. I. I am afraid, and I can scarcely breathe when I think of all the unspeakable danger that could take my children from me in butterfly’s breath. The world is a scary place. But the only way we can move beyond our paralyzing fear is to tackle our challenges together. And maybe, just maybe, thirty years from now one of today’s 25-year-old teachers will be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember when my students were afraid of that.
Tell me your stories of fears that have never materialized and the joy that comes from moving beyond them.