A Dongfeng-41 intercontinental strategic nuclear missiles group formation. CNS photo/Weng Qiyu, Reuters

Gerry Turcotte: ‘Duck and cover’ isn’t an option

  • August 1, 2020

When I was growing up it was popular to mock a film made in the 1950s to prepare children to survive a nuclear war. Older folks will remember this odd cross between animated and live action footage featuring a bow-tied Bert the Turtle who could “duck and cover” at the sign of danger.

The film instructed children to jump under their desks in the event of a nuclear detonation, safe presumably from the mushroom cloud erupting in the near distance. It was an oddly benign and disturbingly simplistic treatment of nuclear fallout by a generation that had just witnessed the devastation of the Second World War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, produced from the midst of a nation embroiled in the Korean War.

Alas, despite the significant evidence of the utter futility of war, we have continued to pursue conflict and seen an exponential increase in our sense of anxiety and concern.

This is especially true for young people. These conflicts, and others such as the terror of the COVID-19 pandemic or the violence behind the systemic racism that has spawned worldwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter, have generated enormous fear and uncertainty among young people.

And more often than not, teachers are at the frontline of this phenomenon, supporting a vast array of children with different needs, different fears, different coping skills. Many are trained for this — most, however, are not. The scale of the issue and their limited resources can mean teachers are called on to occupy roles far outside their comfort zone or field of expertise. I was one of them.

I can remember teaching a class of some 400 students in Australia the day after the 9/11 attacks. I entered the large university lecture theatre to find only half the students there, all with stunned expressions on their faces. A number of them were crying. It seemed ridiculous, in that moment, to do a lecture on Romantic poetry. Instead I invited them to talk about how they felt, and we moved around the room discussing the anxiety and fear that this event had generated half a world away.

I know it wasn’t enough, but it was a start. Over the coming weeks we established a support group to talk about the issues, trying, overall, to build community at a time of stress and uncertainty. What wasn’t addressed, though, was the stress the teachers — myself included — felt at that time. Our ability to cope was taken for granted — despite significant evidence to the contrary.

We understand the importance of mental health better than we ever did. Even though much more needs to be done, there are certainly more services available to support those who are struggling, and great efforts made to de-stigmatize mental health issues.

I have similarly been impressed with the many students who have used social media platforms to engage the world and ensure their voices are heard. Younger people are at the head of social movements to protect the environment, champion racialized lives, combat homelessness and poverty. Their activism is one of the tools to build stronger mental health.

In the midst of these catastrophes, it is not unusual to ask about the place of faith in the equation. For some, disasters are proof of a failed belief system. For others, faith is the anchor that grounds them through the uncertainty. As Catholic educators it is important that we acknowledge the upheaval and uncertainty that surrounds us and locate it in the context of a God who loves us and who has our back.

It is important that we remember — and that we remind our students — how Christ suffered under the yoke of oppression, racism and ridicule, and yet never lost His belief in the grace and potential of humanity. It is that belief in us, expressed by the greatest teacher who ever lived, that should inspire all of us to be our best selves, despite the challenges and fears we face.

Now is not the time to duck and cover. It is a time to stand together and face our challenges as the community God calls on us to be.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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