The Fall of King Yertle
The recent events in Africa and the Middle East have been dominant topics of conversation at my dinner table over the past couple of weeks. My husband and I both agree that the demonstrations are inspiring, courageous, and a positive sign of change. We have discussed the role of cell phones and the internet in these demonstrations, their impact on world politics, and other abstract ideas. My 3 ½-year-old son often likes to chime in with questions like: Why were people in the streets? What were they doing? Why? Why? Why…
Explaining things like the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to adults is hard enough. Explaining them in a way that a young child can understand is a challenge far beyond my parenting skills.
I want my children to understand and respect the power of people and social change. Social change is ingrained in nearly every aspect of my life. Since graduating from college, I have worked and volunteered at a variety of nonprofit organizations. One had a mission of educating voters and another existed to oppose war. I have organized independent family farmers and now I help raise money for a mental health advocacy organization.
I have struggled with how to communicate my passion for social change to my children. We do small things in my house: We recycle, compost, and garden to reduce our carbon footprint. We promote sharing and inclusiveness. These are important lessons, but they are only a portion of the whole picture.
Enter Dr. Seuss. Yes, Dr. Seuss. After one particularly confounding discussion about the current protests at dinner, I opened a collection of stories by Dr. Seuss to “Yertle the Turtle” before bedtime. For those who aren’t familiar with this story, Dr. Seuss describes the rise of Yertle the Turtle King. It all started when Yertle wanted to rule more than his pond. He wanted to sit higher, so he ordered nine turtles to his stone and using these turtles he built a new throne. But, his plan had a kink. And that kink was a turtle on the bottom of the stack, a plain turtle named Mack. Mack said, I’ve pains in my back and shoulders and knees. How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?
The story goes on to read like a simplified version of what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya. The king got greedy with power and shouted, SILENCE! He ordered more turtles to pile on the thrown. They were afraid, so they obeyed. All of them stepped on the head of poor Mack. Just when King Yertle thought he was on the top of the world, that plain little turtle named Mack said, I know up on top you are seeing great sights, but down at the bottom we, too, should have rights. We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack! Then Mack did a plain little thing: He burped and shook the throne of the king. That was the end of the throne of the king. Yertle fell off his high thrown and plunk into the pond.
And the lesson of the story, like the lessons we have learned time after time with social justice movements, empowerment, and organizing: Yertle became King of the Mud.
So now when I struggle with how to explain current events, I’ll consult Dr. Seuss and remember that the concept isn’t too abstract: And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be. It’s something that a 3 ½ year old understands. And it’s exactly why I work for social change.