Jody and her friend Izzy played quietly in the corner of the living room as their parents gathered around the television, worried looks on their faces. It was unusual for both the parents to be at home this time of day. It was even strange to see them watching TV after school. This was television time for kids. Time for them to wind down after the busy day at school and watch their favourite shows like Arthur and The Magic School Bus.
“I can’t believe this is happening” Jody’s mom said. She looked incredulously at the TV.
“It’s unreal,” Izzy’s Mom agreed.
Jody inched closer to where the parents stood, trying to figure out what they were watching, what was making them so upset.
Suddenly, Izzy’s mom gasped and her own mom’s eyes grew wide. Jody pushed between them to get a glimpse what they were reacting too. On the screen, she saw an airplane fly into a big building and smoke billow everywhere from another building. People were running and screaming. Things were falling from the building that was smoking. Grown up voices were raging from the television set, clearly in panic. Another scene, showing a burning plane crashed into a field, played now as the adults shook their heads. Her parents flipped through the channels, searching for something, but the same images and voices were on all the channels. There was so sign of Arthur or The Magic School Bus that day. There were many words and phrases that she kept hearing over and over again: ‘terrorists’, ‘end of the world’, ‘evil’ and ‘destruction’. At only five years old though, she didn’t know what they meant. Jody gathered from the looks on the faces of her parents that this was all bad, and she should be really scared.
“This is one September day we won’t ever forget,” whispered her dad.
Tuesday came and went, and the week continued, though all the grown-ups at home and at school seemed sad and subdued. Her parents watched the news more and talked at the dinner table in quiet voices long after dinner was over. Her grandparents came to visit on Wednesday and they held her a little longer and a little tighter than usual. The same words she had heard a lot on Tuesday kept being repeated throughout the week. Jody listened hard and tried to get a sense of what was happening. She asked her friend Izzy if she knew what was happening, but Izzy just shrugged. She asked her teacher, but she said it wasn’t something she felt was right for her to talk to Jody about. Her teacher told her to ask her parents. Jody tried to ask her mom, but the words didn’t come out quite right, and so she ended up asking her another question that she knew would make more sense. With all of the grown-ups seeming like they were confused about the news they saw on television, it made Jody feel better to ask questions where there was an answer that made sense, like ‘why are the leaves on the trees changing colour?’. Her mom could answer that question easily.
Thursday the world became even more confusing to Jody. She got up as usual and headed down to breakfast. Coming down the stairs, she could smell the toast cooking and the coffee brewing, signs of a normal day beginning. As she sat at the breakfast table though, she noted that her parents were in a heated discussion, which was unusual for this time of day. Her father held the newspaper in front of him. On the front page was a fuzzy photo of a man with a turban. He looked a little scary to Jody, but in some ways he also looked like her friend Mohammad’s dad, though really only because he wore a turban and had a beard. Feeling like she needed to distract her father from what sounded like an upsetting conversation with her mother, Jody pointed this out.
“Look, that man on the paper looks like Mohammad’s dad,” she blurted out.
The conversation between her parents immediately stopped. Her mother paled and her father’s brows knit together. They looked at each other with more worry in their eyes.
“Irfan,” her father finally said, “I hadn’t even thought about how this might be affecting his family. With everyone throwing blame at Al Qaeda, and everyone Muslim, I suspect he must be feeling some of this anger.”
“What has he done?” Jody asked, concerned at how Mohammed’s dad might be connected to all of the bad things that people were talking about.
“Absolutely nothing,” Jody’s mom reassured her. “They are a good family and great neighbours. They haven’t done anything. Is everything ok at school for Mohammed this week?” she asked.
Jody thought for a moment and then realized that she hadn’t actually seen Mohammed around for the last few days.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s been away this week.”
Her parents glanced at each other again, looking even more concerned.
“I’ll drop by to see how they are doing this morning,” her dad said as he rose from the table. “I’m sure this can’t be easy for them”
“Why?” Jody asked, “What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry about it, Jody. It’s not something you need to have to think about at your age,” he replied. He kissed her on the top of the head and headed out of the kitchen, leaving her even more confused and lost about what was happening in her world.
Jody’s uneasiness escalated further as she got on the bus Friday morning and saw Mohammed sitting alone in the front seat, far away from the usual crowd of kindergarten kids he typically sat with. The tension on the bus was noticeable. The driver frowned and glanced uneasily at Mohammed. Jody stopped on the top step and tried to decide if she should sit next to him, or keep moving further on the bus to where her friend Izzy sat beckoning to her. She remembered what her mom had told her about Mohammed’s family being good people and good neighbors, and her dad’s concern about Mohammed’s dad. It occurred to her that perhaps Mohammed could fill her in on what was going on, so she plunked down beside him and smiled. Relief washed over Mohammed’s face at the sight of her next to him.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. “How’s it going?”
“OK,” Jody replied, noting that this was typical of their conversations. Nothing different that she would have expected.
“Why are people so angry and worried this week?” she asked, “What’s going on?”
Mohammed’s eyes grew wide “You mean it’s weird in your house too? My parents are all angry and upset and they wouldn’t let me go to school for a few days. They said something about terrorists and people being angry at Muslims for no reason. My mother seems very afraid and I had to fight to convince her to let me go to school today. She is freaking out that someone is going to kill me. I couldn’t stand being home anymore with them. Then I get on the bus and no one will sit with me. I don’t know what’s happening to the world.”
The bus pulled up in front of the school and all of the students started to rise and exit. Even though they were at the front of the bus, Jody and Mohammed sat and waited for the others to leave. As they went by them, many of the older kids gave suspicious looks or glares at Mohammed. Jody raised her eyebrows in question at her friend. Mohammed sat as still as stone and looked terrified. He shook his head slightly at her as if to say, ‘I have no idea what’s going on’.
When all of the other children were off, they gathered their things and moved down the stairs, off the bus. Izzy was waiting for Jody just outside the door. She shot Mohammed a nasty look and grabbed Jody by the arm and pulled her away.
“What are you doing?” she whispered, “you can’t be friends with him anymore. He’s not like us. His people are trying to kill us. Haven’t you heard?”
Jody looked at Izzy in disbelief. What was she talking about? Who was she talking about? How could she say those things about their friend? Jody opened her mouth to ask her all those questions, but at that moment the bell rang and the teacher ushered them into school, leaving Jody’s questions unanswered.
Saturday finally arrived with bright sunshine and warm temperatures. It was a beautiful fall day.
“Let’s go to the cottage,” her dad suggested, “it’s been a long week, and I think we all could use a break from the craziness of the real world.”
Jody thought she couldn’t agree more. Her head was spinning from all of the unanswered questions that had accumulated over the week. A sense of dread was building within her based on the comments and conversations that had been swirling around her.
Jody loved going to the cottage where life seemed less complicated. She quickly ran to her room to pack her special things for the weekend. She packed her suitcase a little more carefully that day, making sure to include all of her favorite toys that she thought she might especially miss if she never saw them again. The stuffed animals she couldn’t fit in, she kissed and hugged tightly before putting them back on her bed. The rest of the day went by uneventfully. They reached the cottage, played at the shore, and had a delicious barbeque dinner. Jody was full and happy, the cares of the week pushed to the back of her consciousness. She helped her dad build the campfire as the sun started to sink on the horizon. They pulled the campfire chairs close and gathered around as the darkness set in. With the sun gone, the air suddenly turned chilly and Jody snuggled into the chair with her Mom. They lay back as far as they could and looked to the sky to watch the stars as they always did. Suddenly Jody realized that the sky looked different that night. Instead of the clear black with the brilliant spots of stars, the sky seemed to be burning far away in the distance. There was a brightness on the horizon that wasn’t what she was used to. The light shone upward and seemed to flash and spark, moving in a rhythm that didn’t make sense to Jody. As she watched the sky, the events of the week came back to her, and she remembered all the words that sounded scary and the worried looks on the grown-ups faces. She remembered the planes and smoke and fires and Izzy’s comments about her neighbour’s people wanting to kill them. On television she had seen smoke and fire and people running and screaming. Was this fire she was seeing now? Was the bad fire and smoke on the TV earlier that week heading their way now?
With panic rising, Jody pulled herself out of her mother’s warm embrace and darted off the chair.
“We have to go in now!” she exclaimed to her parents. “It’s not safe out here. We have to go into the cottage. The fire, the bad people! We have to go in!” she blurted out frantically.
Her parents both sat up and looked at her, trying to figure where this sudden fear had come from. Jody was only five, what bad people were she talking about? Had she watched a scary movie recently that they weren’t aware of?
“Jody, what’s wrong?” her dad said softly and crouched down beside her.
“The end of the world,” she said with terror in her voice, “like on Tuesday. Look at the sky, its coming! The terrorists, the burning planes, and bad people.”
Her parents looked up and her mother smiled slowly as the pieces fell into place and she put it all together.
“Oh Jody!” she said, wrapping her arms around her frightened daughter, “I didn’t realize that you were paying attention, or that you saw what was going on this week. I am so sorry. I should have explained. I should have told you more about what was happening. We’re alright. We are safe here. What happened didn’t happen close to where we live and what you see tonight has nothing to do with that at all. In fact, what you see tonight is almost the opposite. It’s one on nature’s beautiful shows, not something awful happening.” Her mother smiled and pulled her close. “Look up, Jody, and enjoy the show. This is not the world ending, it’s just the Northern Lights.”
Jody breathed deeply and leaned into her mother, hugging her tightly. She looked up at the sky with a new perspective.
“It’s really ok?” she asked tentatively
“Well,” her mother explained. “The world’s a little different since what happened on Tuesday, but we can’t live our lives afraid every day and afraid of other people. There will be changes and decisions that grownups will make that will affect you when you are older, but for now, you shouldn’t change. Let me answer your questions and help you try to understand.”
Jody climbed up onto her mother’s lap and started to listen and as she did, her questions floated up and vanished into the northern lights.