So, I'm substituting at a local public elementary on the west side of Ann Arbor, helping one of the teachers with a second grade class. The students are writing to their pen pals, University of Michigan students. They're practicing their cursive; some are printing. There are maybe two children of color out of the twenty or so kids. It's snowing outside and the children are focused on their work.
I try familiarizing myself with their names taped to the front of their desks. Some are decorated with random artwork...dinosaurs, etc., others as though they are American or German flags. I notice in the corner by the window three or four desks that have variations of the colors of the flag of Germany with the boys' names superimposed on each.
One boy, Leo*, is stuck. He says he doesn't know what to write. Earlier, he'd greeted me with "If someone said, 'come out dead or alive!' I'd say 'dead!'" Leo has already answered one letter from his pen-pal and doesn't have her most recent note. I suggest writing about what he likes to do for fun or while on the upcoming spring break. He says that he might visit his grandparents "up North" or visit Chicago.
He bends his head over the sheet and jots down a sentence. I go and assist other students and then return to Leo. He has drawn a flag and next to it another vaguely familiar design at the bottom of the page. He's stuck again. "I need a red and yellow crayon," he says. I encourage him to look in his desk or to ask a friend. Finally, he produces the right colors and starts to finish coloring in the stripes of the flag. I then realize what it is that I'm looking at. Next to the flag is a very accurate attempt at a swastika.
I ask Leo what it is. He says it's a flag. I say that it's not a flag (he didn't draw it on a flag shape like the accompanying modern German flag), it's a symbol. He starts to cover up the swastika with his hands. I say, with a calm voice, that it's actually the symbol of the bad guys during WWII. Keeping his eyes on his desk Leo calls it a WWII flag and plays with his pencil.
As the teacher approaches I say that I'm not sure if his pen-pal will appreciate receiving a swastika in the mail. Leo's neighbor Jack leans in, offering advice on which way the arms should bend and says, trying to sound convincing, that it is a cool design. Next to Jack, another boy says that he doesn't like discussing WWII, that his grandfather fought in the war.
The teacher immediately asks Leo to show her his drawing. She agrees that it's not appropriate and says, "what if she's Jewish?" referring to Theo's pen-pal. She then asks him if he can turn it into something else. Leo says he can turn it into a "crazy" picture and adds bends and turns and scribbles over it.
Awkward silence. Trying to keep it positive, I mention that Leo did say it was from WWII and that he seemed interested in history. He then said that he knows the German flag from WWI, as well. I smile and go to help another student....
*(name has been changed)