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Opinion | Joan Wickersham

Schoolyard roulette

When I was a kid, I loved Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. My favorite was a tale called “The Snow in Chelm.” In the village of Chelm, it snows one night, and the snow-covered ground glitters like diamonds, silver, and pearls. The town elders, meeting during the snowfall, agree that the snow is a precious treasure that must be protected from the trampling feet of the townspeople.

Now, Chelm is a village populated entirely by fools, and the elders are the biggest fools of all. After much solemn discussion, they decide to send a boy around the village with a hammer, to tap on every window and tell the occupants of each house to stay inside, so that the snow will remain pristine and untrampled.

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What a clever plan! The elders are pleased with themselves.

But wait . . . in making these rounds, the boy himself will trample the snow, and the treasure will be ruined.

More cogitating. More discussion. At last one of the elders comes up with a solution: Put the boy up on a table and have four men carry the table from house to house. That way the boy can deliver the message without trampling the snow! So the elders send out the boy on a table carried by four men. The “stay inside, don’t trample the snow” message is delivered to everyone in the village.

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But the next morning, when the elders look out the window, the snow is trampled and filthy. They immediately see their mistake. They should have realized that the boots of the men carrying the table would make a mess of the pristine snow.

And not only do they see their mistake, they know how to do things differently in the future. Yes, they have to protect the snow from the footprints of the boy, but they also have to protect it from the footprints of the four men.

So here’s the plan: The next time it snows, they will find four other men to carry the four men who carry the table that carries the boy.

Imagine the discussion the elders of Chelm might have about guns.

Let’s put an armed guard in every school.

But wait — what if someone shoots the guard?

Let’s add a second armed guard. Let’s arm the principal and the teachers. Let’s just keep arming people.

Every time a shooting occurs, the elders of Chelm would decide that the way to fix the problem is to increase the number of guns and potential shooters, to escalate the firepower, to hand out more and more weapons.

What is surprising isn’t so much that there are people who think like the elders of Chelm. It’s that there are others who listen to them.

But what is heartening is that suddenly more and more of us are speaking out against the folly of such circular, self-serving logic.

Singer’s tales for children are not overtly political. But he draws upon archetypes, and one of them is this archetype of fools who are blind to their own folly.

He dedicated the book of stories I had, which appeared in 1966, to “the many children who had no chance to grow up because of stupid wars and cruel persecutions which devastated cities and destroyed innocent families.”

We all want to protect our children. We may disagree on the best way to do that. But the lesson of Chelm is that even though myopic escalation only makes a problem worse, some association of fools will always propose it. The real fools are the ones who go along with them.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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