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Sunday Reflection: Torchwood Children of Earth, a reflection on how we think of the poor students among us

After watching all of the Doctor Who reboot, the next logical step is to watch Torchwood, a spin-off involving Captain Jack Harkness.  Learn from my mistakes though, don’t watch it with your children.  Torchwood is no Doctor Who.  However I will say that the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth may be one of the best things I have seen on TV in a very long while.  It really haunts me.

Torchwood itself is a secret agency that hunts down alien artifacts and activity so that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.  It is headed up by Captain Jack Harkness, who can not die.  A bunch of stuff happens in seasons 1 and 2, and then in season 3 they team comes together(ish) to fight a new alien threat in the 5 episodes mini-series Children of Earth.  A little spoilerish discussion follows . . .

Aliens come to Earth demanding 10% of the Earth’s children or they will destroy the planet.  The question is: can we sacrifice 10% of our children to save the human race, or do we fight knowing that the planet will ultimately be decimated and the human race will probably be wiped out of existence?  I can’t recall the exact number but 10% equaled over 1 million children from all countries. It raises a big question, can we – should we – sacrifice a few to save the many?  And of course the next logical question is: who do you sacrifice?

So we fast forward to a scene where heads of state are deciding what – and how – they are going to handle this crisis and what unfolds is little surprise to anyone who is paying attention, but seeing it actually acted out really makes some of our prejudices quite clear, they are laid naked before us.

To begin with, the heads of state insist that of course THEIR children are guaranteed safety because they matter, they are important.  The question then becomes, who doesn’t matter? Who can easily be sacrificed?  It may surprise you to find out that the answer is, of course, our poorest children, but really it shouldn’t. Our “under performing” children.  So they use their statistical data – school test scores – and determine which are the least effective schools and decide that those students are the ones that will be sacrificed.  These children, they maintain, have little to offer the world because they have the distinction of attending a poorer school that is failing, which must mean that they too will fail.

Character of Denise Riley speaking: “The first responsibility is to protect the best interest of this country, right? Then let’s say it: in a national emergency a country must plan for the future. And discriminate between those who are vital to continued stability and – those who are not. And now that we’ve established that our kids are exempt the whole principle of random selection is dead in the water anyway. – Let me finish! Now look: on the one hand we’ve got the good schools and I don’t just mean those producing graduates. I mean the people who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories; the work force of the future. We need them. Accepted, yes? So: set against that, you got the failing schools, full of the less able, the less socially useful, those destined to spend a lifetime on benefits occupying places on the dole queue and, frankly, the prisons. Now look, should we treat them equally? – God knows we’ve tried and we failed, and now the time has come to choose. And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving ten percent of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?” (from Torchwood Children of Earth, Day Four)

Before moving to Texas, we lived in a high poverty area and my daughter attended a failing school.  In fact, all of the schools around us were failing.  We got letters every year reminding us that our schools were failing and we had the option of sending our child to a different school.  But, truth be told, they were all failing.  And in the 10 years that I lived there they could never get the city to pass a funding levy.  Today, the poverty rate in the town is so high that they now provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in the district to help address the hunger needs that contribute to some of the issues they have in the schools.

So according to the heads of state, every child in that school district was an easy sacrifice.  Every child.  Including my child, a straight A student with an advanced purple belt in karate and a heart of gold.  Including her best friend, who is an awesome basketball player learning to play the piano.  Including every child that ever walked into my library while I worked in the city’s public library: the readers, the dreamers, the doers, the lost, the lonely, the abused, the neglected . . . Every. Single. One. of Them.  Because they were poor and had low test scores, they would have been sacrificial.  If this doesn’t make you scared of our current emphasis on testing, then I don’t know what will.

Image from FanPop

Torchwood Children of Earth does many things really well, but one of the things that it does magnificently is pull back the curtain and reveal the heart of man and our prejudices against those living in poverty, those seen as different or unworthy.  It reminds us all that we do put labels and price tags on the value of each life.  But more importantly, it reminds us that we shouldn’t.

When a child is born into poverty and their only choice is to go to a failing school – and lower funded schools in poverty stricken areas do have more obstacles to overcome for success – that doesn’t diminish their worth.  It does present more obstacles, but it is up to all of us to help them overcome those obstacles.  These children are not easy sacrifices.  They are our present and our future.  How we treat them today, how we create an environment where they can succeed and learn and grow, affects our future tomorrow.