When your eighth grade English teacher assigned you to read Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, you said, "I'd have helped her family." You said it aloud in class, in a tone of utter conviction. Later, back at your house, you imagined building a safe room in the attic where you would protect her, no matter what.
For at least a few weeks, when you were 13 years old, Anne Frank lived in the safehouse of your imagination. Perched there between childhood and adulthood, you imagined yourself resisting the Nazis banging on your door.
In a very real way, she is probably still there. You continue to shelter her, and your view of yourself as her protector. It is Anne Frank you remember when you hear about a ban on refugees and head to the airport to protest.
Later, when you studied Frederick Douglass in history class, you said, "I'd have worked to abolish slavery." You followed Douglass from childhood to manhood, witnessing his resistance of a brutal system designed to destroy his humanity. As you read, his stunning actions of courage and sacrifice felt like your own.
Whatever your race, Douglass’s Narrative drew you in. Today you march beside Douglass when you show up for Black Lives Matter. Dr. King is there, and Shirley Chisolm, because when you read about them in history class, their courage infused into yours.
When a friend gave you Ender's Game on the school bus, you read the whole book in two nights, telling yourself, "I would fight a cruel regime." When you read The Chronicles of Narnia, you chose Team Aslan. When you devoured all of Harry Potter, you imagined yourself in Dumbledore's Army, standing behind Neville Longbottom as he brandished the sword of Gryffindor to slay the last Horcrux.
During all those long afternoons reading, you wondered why the Germans and Slytherins and frozen beasts of Narnia let chaos and madness loose in their lands. “How could the White Witch have come to power?” you asked yourself.
"I'd have stopped her," you said.
As you turned page after page, these simple stories — pure evil and flawed good — built your moral imagination.
It was The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time in elementary school. Then Animal Farm, 1984, and To Kill a Mockingbird. You set yourself alongside those cornered heroes, invisible witness to their impossible choices. As you sat curled on a sofa somewhere, the only noise in the room the turning of the pages, their choices became your own.
Do you remember the characters’ confusion, bewilderment, petulance and foolishness? They acted anyway. Even deluded Edmund eventually put down the Turkish Delight and became a hero.
Those books prepared us for today. They taught us to separate truth from lies, and to ask more of ourselves. Written in the shadow of the violence and horrors of the wars and injustice of the19th and 20th centuries, those books gave us a sense of how to respond to the swirling political maelstrom being kicked up like dust all over the globe.
Those books are why I teach middle school.
In between attendance, lunch duty and grammar lessons, there are moments of transcendence when my students engage mind, body and soul in the choices fictional characters are making. They read The Crucible, transfixed as a community goes mad. They are incensed at the ease with which mob rule overcomes logic, and moved as the protagonist’s moral failings lead him to the scaffold. In these moments, my students are not 13 year-olds hovering between childhood and adulthood, between science class and P.E. They are citizens of Salem, lining up on one side or another, making choices and witnessing what unfolds.
I teach because the books we read as children build a foundation for our moral actions.
In some part of your mind, Anne is hidden away. Atticus is in court, trying to decide how best to discredit Mayella Ewell and save Tom Robinson. Pecola Breedlove stands friendless at the kitchen sink. Dolores Umbridge is running Hogwarts, Mr. Tumnus has been taken prisoner, and Charles Wallace is trapped in Camazotz, waiting to be released by the power of your boundless love.
Those stories, read years ago, are resonating in a new way. For reasons beyond any single person’s control, now is the time for actions. We are the adults, and it is up to us to make choices.
We live in a dangerous world, in a polarized nation where nothing feels certain and secure. The most central question posed by these books of our youth is this: will we cower in our gated communities with our excuses, or will we get out there and live our values?
When we act, we will be bewildered and confused. We will choose poorly and make mistakes for which we will painfully have to atone.
But ready or not, the world is on your doorstep, banging with a heavy hand. As you write the story of each new day, you must unfailingly ask: are you the adult you imagined, as a child, you would become?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.