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You don’t need to show children 9/11 footage to teach them the world is bad

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Out of the Blue, Simon Armitage’s devastating poem commemorating 9/11, re-humanises a distant “falling body”, captured by accident in the background of someone’s video footage. It charts the descent of one of the people who wanted to live so much that they took the risk of jumping from an abominably great height in the hope that a miracle would save them.

The voice in the poem directly addresses you, the reader, as if there might be something you could do to help. By the last stanza it’s clear that there’s nothing you, they, or anyone can change. If it was possible to watch the footage without crying, the poem adds the missing bits, punching the tragedy out at you. The idea that you would need to look at a video in order to understand the poem is weird. If anything, it’s the other way around. The poem is hardcore, it doesn’t seem to need “bringing to life” any more than Little Red Riding Hood needs to be supplemented by documentary evidence of a wolf being hacked open.

If you are a child you are likely to be very good at identifying, getting involved in stories, picturing things in your head. This is just as likely to be true of historical events as fictitious ones. The notion that children are uninterested in the world, and need things spicing up for them, seems to go against the evidence. In a large number of cases the opposite is likely to be true; the world is rather overwhelming and full of sadness and horror, and children tend to be pretty well aware of that. The problem is how to talk about it without freaking them out even further – or lying to them in order to pull the wool over their eyes.

When reading about the sacking of Suriyah Bi, my first thought was that I wished she had worked at my primary school. We were endlessly having disturbing episodes from history rammed down our throats, being taken to the Tower of London where creepy old men would tell us how many hacks it had taken to remove Anne Boleyn’s head, while standing in front of the patch of grass where it had actually happened. If some kind person had stepped in to save us, I for one, might have been spared years of nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and a fear of the dark that lasted into adulthood.

The idea that Suriyah was obstructing the truth due to religious or political prejudice is completely misguided – as the employment tribunal found. Why would people have such a passion for showing unsettling images to children that they would eject any obstacle in their path? Especially when buffering children against the ubiquity of distressing imagery is surely a very important part of any contemporary education. Remember, kids, you don’t have to look at everything on the internet.

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