(Cleveland Post December 15, 2011)
The children - literate, middle class, mostly elementary age - gathered around the teacher. The teacher held up a poster with a symbol on it and said, "I bet you all can tell me what this is."
The symbol was a circle, line down the middle with two additional lines sprouting symmetrically from the center in the direction (roughly) of five and seven o'clock. It looks enough like a bird's foot to give credence to one of it's names I had been taught as a child.
With the satisfaction of people who know what they are talking about, the children shouted out in unison "The hippie sign!"
All the grown-ups laughed.
It was, of course, the peace sign.
Peace signs do not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by their response. These children have grown up during a war, live in a time when the peace sign is a fashion statement, particularly on girl's clothes. How could they not know its proper name?
Maybe they did know it and forgot it. Maybe they didn't know. Whatever the reason, the symbol showed up enough to need a name. Maybe they used context clues to give it their own label: the hippie sign.
In reading, context clues are an example of what teachers call a reading strategy. When you encounter a word you don't recognize, look at the words around it to see what they can tell you. It can take you far, but isn't perfect. I remember trying to make 'menstruation' into 'administration' in fifth grade.
The reaction of these children made me wonder: what other symbols have they labeled using context clues?
Do the Stars and Stripes, red, white and blue make them think of "Liberty and justice for all" or the July 4th cookout display at the grocery store? Does Santa Claus make them think of sharing a joyous Christmas morning with their families or of how much loot they expect to rack up? Is the swastika a Nazi symbol or a German symbol and do they know the difference?
What comes to mind when they see religious symbols?
The children are not entirely wrong in labeling the peace sign "The hippie sign." Their answer is a reminder that nothing is obvious to eyes that haven't been taught to see.
It is up to us to teach them to see. For one thing, symbols often give meaning to the things surrounding them, rather than taking meaning from them. A cross on the steeple of a white clapboard church states the building has been set aside for Christian purposes, not that only white clapboard buildings with steeples are churches.
For another, the nature of symbols is such that there is nothing to keep their meaning from changing over time or at the hands of different groups. The hooked cross was used in positive ways by a broad range of cultures before the Nazis adopted it and we came to know it as a swastika. Do our children know there are multiple meanings? Do they know which meanings we ascribe to, which ones we reject?
Ultimately, it comes down to teaching our children about our symbols before someone else does it for us. Peace signs were defined for me by someone who held them and their bearers in contempt. Over time, I met people whom I respected who also aligned themselves with with the peace movement. My perspective enlarged and shifted to the point I was as disgusted seeing peace signs reduced to the "in" fashion accessory as I had been when crosses went through the same craze. Respect, not affection.
The holidays are full of "Look! See! Wow!" moments with children. They are also full of symbols. Take advantage of these teachable moments. Talk with your children, find out what they think they see. Laugh. Read stories together. Sing songs. Learn. Love.