Even so, not many of the children knew what a Current Event was. Little Chuck Little, a hundred years old in his knowledge of cows and their habits, was halfway through an Uncle Natchell story when Miss Gates stopped him: “Charles, that is not a current event. That is an advertisement.”
Cecil Jacobs knew what one was, though. When his turn came, he went to the front of the room and began, “Old Hitler—”
“Adolf Hitler, Cecil,” said Miss Gates. “One never begins with Old anybody.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “Old Adolf Hitler has been prosecutin’ the—”
“Persecuting, Cecil . . .”
“Nome, Miss Gates, it says here—well anyway, old Adolf Hitler has been after the Jews and he’s puttin’ ’em in prisons and he’s taking away all their property and he won’t let any of ’em out of the country and he’s washin’ all the feeble-minded and—”
“Washing the feeble-minded?”
“Yes ma’am, Miss Gates, I reckon they don’t have sense enough to wash themselves, I don’t reckon an idiot could keep hisself clean. Well anyway, Hitler’s started a program to round up all the half-Jews too and he wants to register ’em in case they might wanta cause him any trouble and I think this is a bad thing and that’s my current event.”
“Very good, Cecil,” said Miss Gates. Puffing, Cecil returned to his seat.
A hand went up in the back of the room. “How can he do that?”
“Who do what?” asked Miss Gates patiently.
“I mean how can Hitler just put a lot of folks in a pen like that, looks like the govamint’d stop him,” said the owner of the hand.
“Hitler is the government,” said Miss Gates, and seizing an opportunity to make education dynamic, she went to the blackboard. She printed DEMOCRACY in large letters. “Democracy,” she said. “Does anybody have a definition?”
“Us,” somebody said.
I raised my hand, remembering an old campaign slogan Atticus had once told me about.
“What do you think it means, Jean Louise?”
“ ‘Equal rights for all, special privileges for none,’ “ I quoted.
“Very good, Jean Louise, very good,” Miss Gates smiled. In front of DEMOCRACY, she printed WE ARE A. “Now class, say it all together, ‘We are a democracy.’ ”
We said it. Then Miss Gates said, “That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,” she said. “Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice,” she enunciated carefully. “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.”
An inquiring soul in the middle of the room said, “Why don’t they like the Jews, you reckon, Miss Gates?”
“I don’t know, Henry. They contribute to every society they live in, and most of all, they are a deeply religious people. Hitler’s trying to do away with religion, so maybe he doesn’t like them for that reason.”
Cecil spoke up. “Well I don’t know for certain,” he said, “they’re supposed to change money or somethin’, but that ain’t no cause to persecute ’em. They’re white, ain’t they?”
Miss Gates said, “When you get to high school, Cecil, you’ll learn that the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of history, even driven out of their own country. It’s one of the most terrible stories in history. Time for arithmetic, children.”
As I had never liked arithmetic, I spent the period looking out the window. The only time I ever saw Atticus scowl was when Elmer Davis would give us the latest on Hitler. Atticus would snap off the radio and say, “Hmp!” I asked him once why he was impatient with Hitler and Atticus said, “Because he’s a maniac.”
This would not do, I mused, as the class proceeded with its sums. One maniac and millions of German folks. Looked to me like they’d shut Hitler in a pen instead of letting him shut them up. There was something else wrong—I would ask my father about it.
I did, and he said he could not possibly answer my question because he didn’t know the answer.
“But it’s okay to hate Hitler?”
“It is not,” he said. “It’s not okay to hate anybody.”
“Atticus,” I said, “there’s somethin’ I don’t understand. Miss Gates said it was awful, Hitler doin’ like he does, she got real red in the face about it—”