Otherness

MOVIE SPOILER – THIS BLOG WILL DISCLOSE INFORMATION ABOUT THE END OF THE MOVIE THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS.

 Today I watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a moving film about the son of a Nazi soldier who befriends a young boy in a concentration camp. The two meet after Bruno, the German boy, goes exploring in the woods and comes across a barbed-wire fence and Shmuel sitting on the other side of it.

 After attempting to make sense of Shmuel’s world and how it is connected with his own, Bruno learns that he must leave his friend and move to Heidelberg with his mother and sister. The day before he is to leave, he tells Shmuel, whose father is now missing in the camp. Bruno, an avid explorer, has an idea—he can dig under the fence and help Shmuel find his father. The next day, he meets his friend at the fence, puts on an extra pair of concentration camp clothes that Shmuel stole for him, and shimmies his way through a hole into the camp. In the end, Bruno’s fate become intricately tied to Shmuel’s—he experiences the fate of Jewish concentration camp inmate. He becomes the “enemy.”

 It is interesting how some of the topics most pervasive in the world—race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc.—do not exist in the inner world of young children. It is only in the preschool years that children begin to learn about what it means to be male or female, black or white. They become socialized into a world that distinguishes sameness from otherness.

 Yet as this movie demonstrates, human beings socially construct differences between people. While there are certainly physiological differences between various types of people, we fail to focus on what we have in common. And in so doing, we teach our children who they are like and who they are not like. White children come to identify with other white children. Girls come to identify with other girls. Lines are drawn, distinctions are made, and borders are formed that are not to be crossed.

 But children often have the ability to look beyond difference, as Shmuel and Bruno demonstrate. They remind us that, in the end, what matters is not what divides us, but what holds us together. And they help us to transcend socially constructed differences by learning about, befriending, and identifying with the “other”—even those whose “otherness” is seen as so extreme that they become our enemies. And ultimately, children can teach us that in some way, every one of use is an “other.”

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