Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Titanic Struggle

My eight-year old son has become fascinated recently with the story of The Titanic. He brought home a book from the library and has been reading up on it. He knows that we have the movie so he asked to watch it.

At first, I said no.

While I applaud my son’s attempt to learn history and I’m willing to help as best I can, I didn’t want him watching the Titanic movie. And it had absolutely nothing to do with him seeing Kate Winslet nude, though that can be skipped over.

It had to do with the children.

The one indelible image I carry from that movie is the kids. Mothers putting their children to bed, knowing that the boat is sinking. A lifeboat returning to pick up survivors and the boat's passengers finding the dead floating in the ocean, including parents holding their children. It’s in those scenes that the director, James Cameron, captures the futility and the heartbreak. The movie was on TV recently. My wife and I watched the first half of it. We didn’t watch the second half.

Eventually, I gave in to my son’s request. He was reading about it. He wanted to learn more. He was asking questions about the iceberg and how it could have happened. (And, of course, there’s the old standby of “My classmates’ parents let them watch it.”)

The movie is long and it took about three sessions to actually get through it as our viewing impinged upon bedtimes and other scheduled activities. This served to break up the tension, had he watched it all the way through. As I expected, he asked a lot of questions. Some were easy.

“Dad, why does everything look so old?”
“Dad, why do icebergs float?”
“Dad, what happened to the girl’s mom?” (Actually, this question was a little difficult, as it was hard to explain to him that some of the characters in the movie, such as Benjamin Guggenheim and Molly Brown, were real people while the main characters were made up.)

But then the others proved a bigger challenge.

“Dad, how could they hit an iceberg?”
“Dad, in my book, there are other ships close. Why can’t they get there in time?”
“Dad, why don’t they have enough lifeboats?”
“Dad, why aren’t the lifeboats going back to get people?”

Even as an adult, it’s hard for me to understand the level of hubris combined with fear that led to the death of so many. The question that follows any attempt to understand a disaster like this is also followed with asking what you do about it.

My favorite Titanic-related story actually deals with Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian who invented wireless radio. In those days, radios broadcast on all frequencies, crowding out other senders and receivers. Marconi was so moved by the tragedy, he supposedly spent the rest of his life refining his technology in the hopes that nothing like it would ever happen again.

For now, all I can explain to my son is that sometimes bad things happen to people through no fault of their own.

For those of you with elementary school age children, would you let them watch Titanic?

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