Southern Cayuga Conversations: Signs of the Times

During a conversation with children in the Southern Cayuga Summer Camp program, I asked them about their favorite signs. A 9-year-old boy began to giggle. I asked about his sign. Still suppressing a laugh, he replied, “The one that says ‘Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.’” I was surprised, and asked him to tell me more. He explained: “One of those signs is near my house. I watch cars and trucks come driving down the road at top speed. You can see some of the drivers on their cellphones. When they see the sign, they slow down and pay lots of attention to the road. They carefully look right and left. But as soon as they pass the house with the sign, they speed up with cellphones in their faces.” He saw my astonished expression and continued: “If those drivers really cared about kids they would know that every house and every road has children. They need to drive safely all the time. The sign is funny because those drivers just don’t get it.” I had not been able to get the conversation out of my mind, nor the uncanny wisdom of this young boy.

When I drove up to the Southern Cayuga Central School on the first day in November, I observed the school flag flying at half-mast. I thought of the weekend of violence with the shooting rampage in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the bombs being delivered in the mail, and additional shootings in a supermarket and a school. How many times in the past year had the flag flown at half-mast? This was a sign of our times — a sign that brought both despair and horror. Then another sign appeared and reminded me that I was at the home of one of 11 Anne Frank trees in the U.S. As I entered the high school, I saw a new sign hanging in the lobby: “We are the proud home of the Anne Frank tree — a living reminder of the impact each human being can have on our global community.” I stood before Anne Frank and read her words written in July of 1944: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet, I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

I needed to talk to students to see what they thought of Anne’s hope and idealism. Thinking of the wisdom of the young man who understood the irony of “Drive Like Your Child Lived Here,” I was sure students could help me understand more about these two signs — one of hatred and one of hope. Bill Zimpfer asked his ninth-grade students if they agreed with Anne’s statement that people were truly good at heart. I received 25 responses to this question. As I read and re-read the words of our students who are the same age as Anne, I realized they speak for themselves. Their thoughtfulness, eloquence and insights are optimistic signs of our times:

“I feel like some people can be truly evil because of how they are being raised, or not having parents in their life to guide them in the right way, or not feeling like anybody loves you.”

“I agree because if someone does something wrong, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just made a mistake they have got to live with.”

“I would like to believe this quote is true and everyone, even the worst person in the world has little bit of compassion and love deep down in their heart. … But there is a small minority population that has absolutely no compassion. … But these people are greatly outnumbered by the good, and we will fight back.”

“A person’s heart is different from a belief in many ways. Your heart includes both feelings and thoughts. Anne’s quote is quite motivating, and very appealing to the heart.”

“Some people believe they are doing good in this world, but at the same time they are destroying it … killing off an entire species so they could make a little money … building cars that provide transportation and also destroy the ozone level that protects us.”

“When people are scared, they become savage animals and the wheels of violence and death just keep spinning.”

“I think people have a choice to be cold at heart, or good at heart. I think most people try to do the right thing. But there are people in the world that try to hurt others, and are a threat to society.”

“We all have room in our hearts to put a little good into it.”

Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the King Ferry Food Pantry and ABC Cayuga, as well as Anne Frank Tree Project and Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She coordinates a literacy support program at Southern Cayuga Central School.