A few months after my daughter Cypress turned two, we sat in the bathroom together in full-on potty-training mode. It was a time marked by frantic foot races to the bathroom followed by seemingly endless waits once there, concertgoers ready for the show, unaware the band hadn’t yet showed up. Cypress perched on the toilet, feet dangling, elbows on knees, her chin in hands.
“Come on, come on,” she said to me, not un-sweetly.
In no hurry to hop down as long as I was there with phone in hand, she was giving me commands. I’d been indulging one of Cypress’s obsessions, watching videos of Disney’s Frozen , when we came across a mashup of the movie’s showstopper “Let it Go.” Instead of the normal song, though, this one was sung in the voice of Darth Vader, the lyrics repurposed to tell the story of Anakin’s tragic fall and the Sith Lord’s subsequent (and brutal!) rise.
In the video, Vader staggered forward in his new suit. Cypress’s eyes grew wide.
“Who is him?” she whispered, enthralled.
We finished the video, my daughter’s accidental introduction to lightsabers, blasters, and intergalactic warfare, and then we watched it again. And again.
That was it—over the next few months, our house grew with Star Wars books, action figures, toy lightsabers, and a Death Star popcorn maker. I realized we’d hit full-blown obsession when Cypress began showing up to preschool, ponytail bouncing atop her head, announcing to her teachers, “I’m Han Solo.” She did this for a week. Finally, they relented and began calling her by the space-pirate-turned-rebel’s name.
And just like that, “Rebels” turned into a totem for Cypress, something filled with mystery and magic. This was, of course, mostly my fault.
Later that year, Cypress and I were cruising down I-64 on our way back home to Richmond, Virginia. Once I thought she’d fallen asleep, I hit play on the audiobook I’d been listening to, a biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Like almost everyone in my demographic, I’d been swept up in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton -madness. Because the musical’s soundtrack was one of my few albums without a barrage of cursing, it became my go-to music with Cypress. She loved it. We danced and rapped along with Hamilton and Lafayette, trading verses during bath time, Cypress perfecting her Aaron Burr imitation, me stumbling over Jefferson’s triple-time rhymes.
As Cypress slept in the backseat, the audiobook picked up in 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion. Hamilton, the youngest of the rebels-turned-statesmen, had found himself in a perfect reversal of fortune. Out in the Pennsylvania frontier, opponents of Hamilton’s whiskey tax edged closer and closer to open rebellion. Eyeing what he saw as a threat to the new federal government, two years earlier Hamilton had warned George Washington that if the rebellion was not put down with a significant show of force, “the spirit of disobedience will naturally extend and the authority of the government will be prostrate.”
Nevermind Washington and the rest of the founding fathers had seized power on the wings of the same rebellious spirit. Hamilton set out to crush these new rebels with Washington at the head of a federal army, which to many felt awfully similar to the recently defeated British army. It only takes one word from the narrator, his voice as musty as a leather armchair, for Cypress, who is suddenly very much awake, to pipe up.
“Who are them rebels?” she asks excitedly.
“Uh . . .” I begin, certain that whatever follows will be a gross misrepresentation of historical fact. “They’re farmers.”
“Why them so mad?”
“They don’t want to pay their taxes,” I say. Though this answer might get me punched in a graduate seminar, it seems broad enough to justify roughly 90 percent of all rebellions. A thoughtful silence ensues. The kid seems to be taking her first conversation about the Whiskey Rebellion in stride.
“Why them so mad at taxes?”
Now I’m in trouble. If explaining the role of taxation in a representative democracy was included in the parenting books I nervously skimmed, I neglected to highlight those parts. And Cypress is just getting warmed up.
For the next fifteen minutes, her questions do not cease. Why them fighting them rebels? Aren’t rebels good? Whiskey like mama’s? And of course, Isn’t Alexander Hamilton a rebel?
Both Star Wars and Hamilton have taught Cypress that rebels were good guys. Rebels fought for justice against overwhelming empires—galactic, British, or otherwise. But the Whiskey Rebellion short-circuited this logic. If Hamilton was a rebel, what was he doing tramping through Western Pennsylvania, putting down a rebellion?
This is how I found myself trying to explain situational ethics to a toddler.
There’s a strange parenting sensation no one ever told me about. It’s the feeling when you see your kid mirroring some less-than-stellar trait of yours that leads you to mutter under your breath, “Oh, shit.” Whenever Cypress runs around in her Princess Leia costume (my white T-shirt, belted at her waist) or points to a waiter with a ponytail and exclaims “That’s Alexander Hamilton!,” I see my own tendency toward obsession.
I used to think of myself as a rebel, and I suppose, despite mounting evidence, I still do. Twenty years ago, as a senior in high school, I picked up an eight-hundred-page biography of the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, which naturally led to what I can only describe as a valiant-yet-failed rebellion against the bourgeois in all its central Indiana forms—teachers, school, conspicuous consumption, mid-tempo grunge music, and especially my parents. I read two more Guevara bios, ditched my clean-cut image, subscribed to the Daily Worker , fairly memorized The Communist Manifesto , and got at least four or five pages into Das Kapital .
Somewhere there’s a picture of me on the day I moved into my freshman dorm. I’m wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat (functional and a symbol of working-class solidarity), my best eighteen-year-old attempt at a goatee, and my hair nearly to my shoulders. I’m standing next to my mother, a high school Spanish teacher. My disdain at her presence on my first official day of freedom is only equaled by her disgust at my appearance behind her forced smile. I stare at the camera as if to say, “What part of you have nothing to lose but your chains don’t you understand, Mom?”
Now? I’m a teacher, which is to say that I rebelled so hard that I more or less became my mother.
Is it any wonder Cypress is fascinated with rebels? Aside from her own obsessions, what child wouldn’t see heroes in every test of authority? Every time we rap along with Hamilton saying, “Essentially, they tax us relentlessly / Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree / He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free / So there will be a revolution in this century,” every time Cypress strikes me down with her plastic lightsaber, the implicit lesson to challenge authority only grows more powerful.
Just a few weeks ago while driving home from Richmond’s Children’s Museum, we cross Monument Avenue in the shadow of Stonewall Jackson. His statue, which towers thirty-eight feet above the intersection, is one of five Confederate monuments along the city’s most famous street. Richmond, for all its twenty-first-century aspirations to become a quirky East Coast version of Austin, Texas, is still the former Confederate capital.
“Ooooh,” says Cypress, impressed by Jackson astride his horse. “He’s pretty cool, right?”
The statues are striking. In 1919, Jackson’s was the fourth installed, following statues of Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis. Jackson’s statue captures the pseudo-religious aura that radiated from him in life and death.
Of all the Confederates, Jackson could easily win the “Most Likely to Form a Religious Cult and Lead it to Mass Suicide” contest. Even in the pre-Kool-Aid era, there was something very Jim Jones-ian about him. A fanatical Presbyterian, Jackson often acted recklessly in battle, believing the fate of his army to be completely in God’s hands. His faith and recklessness were contagious, leading one pious Virginian to write, “I believe that God leads Jackson and Jackson his men, just where it is best they should go.”
This was, of course, before Confederate soldiers mistook Jackson for Union cavalry and shot him three times during the Battle of Chancellorsville. He died a week later.
Do I think he’s cool? No, I do not. For all the public attention paid to a failed rebellion fighting to expand slavery, Jackson, with his wild-eyed Christian defense of the slave state, strikes me as totally uncool, an absurd person to publicly venerate.
However, except for a few small things like surviving and winning his war, Jackson is a lot like Hamilton, Luke, and Leia. He’s the quintessential rebel to millions of people who grew up revering him.
How do I explain to Cypress the difference between these rebels? How do I help her understand that behind every rebellion are morals and beliefs that guide them, values for which we will be judged? What makes one anti-tax rebellion just and the next unjust? When do you have to separate the rebel from his or her rebellion? These questions seem more important than ever, perhaps because we’re a country still fighting over them.
Cypress is waiting for an answer.
Though he’s been dead for 150 years, Jackson’s still capable of inspiring fervent religious thoughts. I hope Stonewall is burning in Hell is what I want to say. Instead, I tell her, “No, I think he was kind of a jerk.”
“Well,” Cypress says, before spouting her most common reaction to men these days, “I want to marry him.”
A few days after declaring her intention to wed a long-dead Confederate general, Cypress asks, “Remember them rebels who don’t want to pay them taxes? Why them don’t like taxes?”
Rebels are never far from the brain these days. The hashtag #Resist has sprung up in response to our new president. Disney pumps out Star Wars rebels as fast as sequel production schedules allow. I do my best to explain taxes to Cypress in a benign, objective tone.
“I teach classes, right?” I say. “Our state decided it was important that citizens learn things, so we pay for school with taxes.”
“Remember them rebels from Star Wars ?” she says. “Them don’t like taxes.”
I don’t know how to respond.
What do Luke and Leia, Hamilton and Washington, and even Jackson and Lee have in common? Real or fictional, they looked at the status quo, be it Vader’s mask, George’s crown, or Lincoln’s election, and decided their cause was worth fighting for. As someone who’s now nearly paralyzed at the thought of sending back an incorrect order at a restaurant, I can’t help but admire the moral certainty of rebellion. I’ve passed that admiration on to Cypress.
Cypress loves rebels. But what she really loves are her ideas about rebellion: standing up for what you believe, drawing up your courage to face down a seemingly invincible foe, taking control of your life rather than having it dictated to you.
What Cypress is learning, as am I, is that rebellion itself is morally neutral. Celebrating rebellion divorced from moral and political contexts creeps dangerously close of nihilism, like tossing a chair through a picture window simply because glass shards sparkle in the sun.
Soon Cypress will be moving further from our sphere of influence—new schools, new friends, new ideas and questions. I hope she’s picking up bits of wisdom.
On the last day of pre-school, Cypress runs around saying goodbye to her friends while her mother and I chat with her teacher. “We’ve just loved having her,” her teacher says. “Cypress has a way of . . . um . . . questioning things, but,” she hastens to add, “in a very nice way.”
Even though this makes our jobs as parents more difficult in a million tiny ways (Do I really need to explain why you can’t stuff Star Wars guys up the dog’s nose?), I feel a burst of pride every time Cypress questions her world, asking How, Why, and, most importantly, Why Not? I hope that years from now, Cypress will stare out from her own picture, the hint of a smirk across her face, ready to challenge the world, shake it down, demand answers. And I hope I’m there too, staring into the same camera, right beside her.