The Children's Story
1982 paperback edition
|1981 (written 1963)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
"The Children's Story" is a 4,300-word short story by James Clavell. It first appeared in Reader's Digest (June 1964 issue) and was republished in book form in 1981. It is also the title of a 1982 short film based upon the story, which aired on Mobil Showcase.
The story takes place in an unnamed school classroom in the United States, in the aftermath of a war between the US and an unnamed country. It is implied that America has been defeated and occupied. The story opens with the previous teacher leaving the classroom, having been removed from her position and replaced with an agent of the foreign power. The new teacher has been trained in propaganda techniques, and is responsible for re-educating the children to be supportive of their occupiers. During the course of the story, the children are persuaded to abandon their religion and national loyalty. Framing the story is the fact that, while the children have ritually recited a 'Pledge of Allegiance' every morning, none know what it actually means. The teacher is relentlessly positive about the change, offering the children candy, songs and praise. When asked if the war was won or lost, she responds only that "we won," implying that everyone would benefit from the conquest.
Only one student is initially hostile to the new teacher, a child named Johnny, whose father had been arrested and placed in a re-education camp. At first, he defends his father, but when he is rewarded by the teacher with a position of authority in the class, he quickly accepts the new regime and commits himself to not accepting "wrong thoughts." The story takes place over a twenty-five-minute span.
In this short story, Clavell touches on many important concepts such as freedom, religion and patriotism.
Yukio Aoshima, who translated this novel into Japanese, suggests it follows on to La Dernière Classe [The Last Class] in Contes du Lundi (1873) by Alphonse Daudet. In a bare 1500 words this talks of the imminent changes in French Alsace as the Germans take over.
Clavell's own commentary tells how he was inspired to write this story after a talk with his six-year-old daughter just home from school. His daughter, Michaela, was explaining how she had learned the Pledge of Allegiance and he was struck by the thought that, though she had memorized the pledge, she had no idea what many of the words meant.
Clavell finishes by writing:
During that day I asked all kinds of people of every age, “You know the 'I pledge allegiance...', but before I could finish, at once they would all parrot it, the words almost always equally blurred. In every case, I discovered that not one teacher, ever — or anyone — had ever explained the words to any one of them. Everyone just had to learn it to say it. The Children's Story came into being that day. It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was — any mind for that matter — under controlled circumstances. Normally I write and rewrite and re-rewrite, but this story came quickly — almost by itself. Barely three words were changed. It pleases me greatly because it keeps asking me questions... Questions like what’s the use of 'I pledge allegiance' without understanding? Like why is it so easy to divert thoughts and implant others? Like what is freedom and why is it so hard to explain? The Children’s Story keeps asking me all sorts of questions I cannot answer. Perhaps you can — then your children will...
The short story was adapted in 1982 as an installment in the anthology TV series Mobil Showcase. Clavell's daughter (the above-referenced Michaela, known professionally as Michaela Ross during her brief acting career) played a seemingly very pleasant young teacher sent to indoctrinate a classroom of American children. She replaces an old teacher (Mildred Dunnock in her penultimate performance), who disappears after the students witness her crying.