By guest author Betsy Lynch
By the Waters of Babylon: Build Your Own Society
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A few decades ago, I was teaching a class of public middle schoolers (upstate New York), an English-Social Studies 8th grade blend. The story they had read, “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen St. Vincent Millay, shocked with a discovery of the ruins of Manhattan, a society having emerged on the ruins, wondering what “they” (“we”) had done wrong. It was a pre-WW2 story, but a “Planet of the Apes” came long after this tale. “We must build again,” was the conclusion. We had also read a significant amount about WW2, the Holocaust, the post WW2 fear of and reality posed by communism and other totalitarian dictatorships. The obvious question to ask students: what and how to build? What sort of society do we need, and how do we get there? How do we protect the rights of people? How do we maintain order at the same time? What is the role of protest?
It was a small town (University combined with an Air Force Base-Strategic Air Command, which was closed several years later, and a rural economy otherwise, situated in a beautiful part of upstate New York – the Champlain Valley Adirondack Region.
My class “groups” self-selected by personal interest and neighborhood socio-economic preferences. I could have assigned based on my clear perceptions of these groups and mixed them. My “betters” at teacher-training groups would have insisted with specific jargon from Harvard explaining why I should. I knew how to do that, but I didn’t. These kids all knew exactly what had to be done. All of them. The kids of prison guards, farmers, small business owners, the kids of enlisted personnel, college faculty, Air Force officers…it was a cross-section of bright, honors students headed for a rigorous New York State Regents Exam.
Guidelines required that students explain who had the power, how they had derived that power, what constitutional or organization laws governed the power, what the expectations of the populace would be, and what this society would look like in terms of health, economy, daily life, education, and justice. Specifically, the guidelines said,
“Explain your methods of achieving justice for all, citizen participation in voting, administration of justice disputes, etc. Demonstrate your understanding of civics in the United States.”
Well. They worked in groups, assiduously, and with great interest. They argued, they compromised, they made charts and large posters, they asked for more time. They wanted to do research. I was so excited and fulfilled! This was what I’d been born to do: show students how to care about building their own new world!
Society one: Freedom Lovers United
The first group totally ready to present their society after three days was impressive. Five of the seven in the group were guys, unusually interested in this project and fully committed to keep their ideas together. Their rules looked like the Bill of Rights, and in this case, plagiarism wasn’t too much an issue! One person, one vote. No problem with eliminating the Electoral College, so long as they controlled the military.
Their details on controlling the military and having access to the same weapons as the military possessed were extensive. They explained to the group that if the citizens didn’t have access to weapons, they would be at the mercy of a government’s whims.
(At the time, I was horrified. I was totally pro-gun control and wanted all guns out of everyone’s hands. One member of this group 5 years later went to West Point and returned at Thanksgiving with a purple/orange mohawk. I hope it wasn’t my fault. Much of what they wanted in a society is exactly what I want today. But we need the Electoral College, or Facebook will continue to control our elections.)
Society two: Equality for All
The second group sought, above all, to maintain equal distribution of wealth and resources. Nobody should have any more than anybody else. Five of the seven were female, and four of these were from difficult home lives. The other two were boys who got themselves in trouble a whole lot. One girl’s mother was a nurse at the big hospital, and she was outspoken about assuring that everyone got good health care without worrying about bills. Another in the group discussed the length of time it took to get the free health care. One person in this group, slightly smaller than the others, suggested that the most important thing was to prevent bullying, and to keep guns out of everyone’s hands. He also believed that free speech was the most important right there was, but he doubted he’d ever have it. The poster this group set up looked elaborate, beautiful, fanciful, and daunting.
(At the time, I thought I had pretty much assured a communist state here! Although I remember trying to change the words to “socialism”, which I considered a softening of the rhetoric rather than a semantic argument; my dad had discussed the McCarthy era with me. Columbia educated, with the GI Bill, my war hero dad.)
Society three: Love Conquers All, But Leave Us Be
My third group was seeking distance from the others. They felt the pressure of the other groups building, and they were not about to be outdone. These six, three boys and three girls, were a mix of college and farm or small business families. Perhaps four of them belonged to a church of which I wasn’t aware until much later; they gathered almost immediately once they realized I wouldn’t assign. While the “experts” don’t like this as a group method, I do. For all their talk of “safe” environments for kids, that’s not really what they mean. Control is what they mean.
Immediately, one assigned the others a task of a chart on the assignment list. At the end, there were six posters, elaborate but straightforward, explaining the principles of the society. Freedom from persecution was pre-eminent. Procedures each would follow, but significantly, procedures to follow if the procedures didn’t seem fair.
(At the time, I thought, “Imagine that! How thorough!” I thought also that I’d be safe with these in charge, but I knew they had no interest in being in charge. I also realized that somehow, I’d short-changed them in my perceptions of their capabilities.)
Society four: Benevolent Goddesses
The group that presented last also had the least preparation and interest. They didn’t bother with an elaborate chart, but just did an artistic piece of propaganda: Blond -haired angels on clouds looking down on small dots, people presumably, and rainbows. They smiled and were confident. They knew they were right. Unicorn kids. Three bright blond girls, and one brunette. The other two were boys who adored them. The smallest group.
(At the time, I thought how lazy they were. But they were group four, and I was tired, and I thought it was funny, “Benevolent Goddesses”! Fitting too because they saw themselves as Goddesses.)
I was disappointed in them only in that they couldn’t seem to explain their rules and order, their adherence to principles of fair and honest justice. They were “my” kids. The Unitarians, plus an additional couple of college faculty kids. I considered that maybe they just knew I loved them, and that I’d give them a pass. Maybe they knew I’d agree with anything they said, even if they just goofed off. Maybe they were just kids. Maybe I didn’t give them as much “supervision” and coaching as the others.
Maybe I thought they agreed with me, so I’d just let it slide.
It haunts me to this day, the Benevolent Goddesses. I’ve joked about their project for decades, but today, watching the debacle in Afghanistan that looks so much like April 20, 1975, and November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, and November 3, 2020…. (and January 6, 2021, as an example of rapid elimination of due process and equal administration of justice), and the declaration by our lead military advisor that the nation’s three most important obstacles are:
- Climate change?
- Domestic terrorism within the military??
- Gender equality???? Not the countries trying to eliminate us.
Of all the groups, “Benevolent Goddesses” is the only one I discussed with anyone. I told their parents. Their parents laughed. I could not understand why their parents didn’t want more. They thought it was cute. Just 8th grade, after all. Ha ha.
Today, on the day Benevolent Goddesses have destroyed not only Afghanistan, but the idea of individual freedom for everyone in the world, I beg forgiveness. I was just a pawn. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I wonder, now, about one of the Benevolent Goddesses, in particular: she was homeschooled until the beginning of that school year, and her brother had been accepted at Harvard. He had never entered the public system. Her Mom and Dad were on opposite sides of the political spectrum as my parents had been. Her brother was an extraordinary genius. Perhaps this “Goddess” just wanted peace, and finally was in charge, no longer in competition with her brother. Everybody else, just shut up and smile, I’ve got this. That sort of thing.
Our modern day VP “Goddess” currently, Kamala Harris, was heard to shout, when asked on a recent Sunday to speak to the American public about the disastrous and disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, “No f****** way they’re going to pin this S*** on me!” She was not even in the top 20 finalists during her party’s primaries.
She’s lower on that scale now. She wants to take a trip to Vietnam. Democrats will throw whatever is inconvenient to the agenda under the bus. So will Republicans who are on the take.
That’s why we wanted an outsider. There wasn’t anybody except Trump.
I’m sorry I didn’t know I was indoctrinated. I’m learning to think for myself. Be nice to the Benevolent Goddesses, but they might not always know what’s best for us. Some of the grown-up goddesses now fly their private jets into Davos, Switzerland to decide how they might manage climate change, corporate world governance, mandatory lockdowns on travel, population control, subjection of local governments (and voting) for the rest of us. Here’s a glimpse if you can stand more:
We get Benevolent Goddesses when we get tired and lazy, instead of staying vigilant and engaged.
Let’s hope we’re not all wearing burquas and submitting to Sharia Law next year, or lining up in stadiums for mandatory weekly vaccinations. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in case they’re listening.
And they are.
By Betsy Lynch
Betsy Lynch taught English, ESL, combined English/Social studies for public schools (middle schools through college) for over forty years, and just retired in December 2020 from the College of Central Florida. After retirement from New York State at 30 years in 2005, she started work immediately in Florida, and has continually tried to “stay retired.” In 2018, she self-published a poetry collection, “Turning Base: Wind Perceptions” (Mill City Press, available on Amazon.) It attempts insights into a radically changing world while reflecting on the lessons of teaching, piloting (single-engine plane), parenting and grandparenting, literature, and music. Some days she perceives the book as an exorcism; others, she gratefully accepts the pleasure it gave to reflect. She resides in both Ocala, Florida (an air ranch) and upstate New York. Website sporadically maintained at Writespiritbetsy.com. Dabbles on Twitter (Liz Lynch) and @Turningbase on Gettr. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org