death. That was their right, of course,nbut they had taught unbelief to Lawrencennot as an alternative kind ofnbelief but as a cause, a battle againstnpervasive human stupidity. Lawrencenwas taught everything as a battlenagainst pervasive human stupidity, andnthus, his little belt squeezing his tinynmiddle, he was sent out to negotiatenthe terrifying and glorious territory ofnearly childhood with nothing but thenpathetic instruments of offended adultnintellect.nSince he was a boy on a missionn(that’s all he had — his parents’ missions),nLawrence discussed the nonexistencenof God often and loudly,nwhereupon certain of his Baptist ornCatholic or Jewish classmates wouldntell him, gravely and with frighteningn(to Lawrence) confidence, that he wasnin for sorrow if he kept that stuff up.nFor parents who would take anscorched-earth approach to religion,nsecular myths are easy targets andnquick work. was no surprise that asnthe holiday season rolled around, Lawrencentold his classmates what his parentsnhad told him: Santa Claus did notnexist; he was an invention, a “lie,” andnthe magic of Christmas morningnwasn’t magical at all because “yournmom and dad do all that stuff.”nWell. If it is possible, based on mynexperience, for five-year-olds to discussnthe existence of God with a degree ofntolerance and self-control, the samencannot be said of their discussionsnabout the existence of Santa Glaus.nExcept for the few who simply eyednLawrence with concern and horror, asnif he were dancing on the edge of ancliff, the Santaphiles in the group werenall over him, and they were mercilessn— merciless enough to drag me, thengrown-up, the teacher, the law, rightninto the middle of things. (It saysnsomething about either the power ofnreligion or the mentality of childrennthat while I was asked repeatedly tonsettle The Existence of Santa Glaus, Innever once was asked to settle ThenExistence of God.)nThe Santa debate raged — raged !^—nall through Christmas, and finally a girlnnamed Elizabeth decided to give Lawrencendouble trouble by combining anfrontal assault with an end run. Shentold Lawrence that Santa Claus existednbecause she existed, that God hadnmade them both, that the two of them.n58/CHRONICLESnElizabeth and Santa Claus, had comenstraight from the mind of God, and fornthat matter, so had Lawrence, and asnfor his mother who was supposedly outnbuying his Christmas presents, Codnhad made her too. In one fell swoop,nElizabeth had made God responsiblenfor everything Lawrence could see —nlike his mother, like Elizabeth — andneverything he could not see, like SantanClaus, and the effect of her maneuvernwas to render Lawrence, for the firstntime since I’d known him, motionless.nHe was at that moment the mostndefenseless child I have ever seen.nBut there was a valiance in Lawrence,nand he wanted to rally. What henactually wanted, of course, was to benallowed to believe in Santa Claus (and,nquite possibly, in God), but he was notngoing to be defeated just because he’dnbeen denied. So finally, all twitchingnlimbs and emotional nerve endings,nfull of the kind of urgency that cannonly be fueled by anxiety, Lawrencenshouted that God had not made him,nthat he was the product of “an egg andna spern,” that he had grown inside hisnmother and Santa Claus was nowherenon the scene, he was positive of that,nbecause he could remember everything,nall of it: it was great in there,ninside his mother, and he had a littlenwindow for looking out on the world,nand a stove on which he made hisnpancakes, and books, and a televisionnset . . .nA pre-birth apartment. That’s ancozy fantasy, one nearly any youngnchild could come up with. But Lawrencenwas not any child. He was a boynforced into desperate fantasy becausenthe enfire world of things unseen hadnbeen denied him. And I thought: Oh,nLawrence, if only your parents at leastnhad allowed you Santa Claus, maybenyou wouldn’t have to invent prenatalnpancakes, and maybe I wouldn’t havento be your classmates’ trump card in andebate over prenatal appliances. Fornaround me, 14 children — all butnLawrence — were screaming, “Mrs.nBarlow! Lawrence says he watchednTV inside his mother! Tell him hendidn’t! Tell him he didn’t”nLawrence was cornered again. Andnbecause he already had paid so dearlynfor being deprived of so much, becausenhe’d been given the hopeless task ofnassaulting, with inferior weapons, ideasnhe could never disprove, his eyesnnnshowed the fear he felt of being robbednyet again, this time of in-the-wombntelevision, which was the only substitutenfor the comforts of God and thenpleasures of Santa Claus that his beleaguerednmind and stifled spirit couldnfind.nIt was with those memories of Johnnand Lawrence that I reread the columnnthat had caused my disorientation, thenone I couldn’t quite believe though Inwas sure it was true. Thomas Sowellnwas discussing the teaching of “deathneducation” in public schools, evennamong first graders. Apparently therenhad been other reports on this “movement”nbut I had missed them. So Infound myself reading for the first time,nand then reading again, about six-yearoldsnwho must “make their own coffinsnout of shoeboxes,” and assignmentsnrequiring children “to decide whichnmember of their own family must die,nwhen the whole family cannot bensaved.”nIt’s as if educators had asked themselves,n”Wonder how sadistic we cannbe?” and then succeeded in findingnout. What could be cruder than annexercise in which children are requirednto mentally kill off a member of theirnown family? What but the creation ofnemotional chaos could be the purposenof group coffin-making? (There isnemotional destructiveness even in thenchoice of materials: Children, you willnnow consider your own death. Andnyou will consider this occurrence in thendimensions of … a shoebox.)nSome children cry during “deathnclasses.” That is, they suffer. Are theirntears not a message, an object lesson, anbrick on the foot of either their teachersnor their parents? Not always, notnoften enough. Some things nevernchange except to get worse, and yes,nwe’re all going crazy. Twenty yearsnago, John’s teachers were intent onneliminating his guileless literalness, andnLawrence’s parents were determinednto destroy any form of guileless nonliteralness.nAnd today, six-year-olds arencrying while making shoebox coffinsn(the perfect assault on guilelessness),nand adults are still unwilling to benmade fools of by children. What’s newnis that now adults are also unwilling tonbe shamed by children.nJanet Scott Barlow covers popularnculture from Cincinnati.n