SPOILERS for The Promised Neverland, Volumes 1-5.
When The Promised Neverland debuted in 2016, it quickly set itself apart as one of the most memorable Weekly Shonen JUMP series in years. That was in no small part due to the first arc’s villain, Isabella, the main characters’ beloved caretaker who turns menacing when they discover she’s raising them to be consumed as high-quality meat for monsters.
As the arc wears on and the characters and audience learn more about the world, Isabella grows more complex. Instead of a simple menace, she is a woman determined to survive the only way she knows how. In a strange way, I found myself relating to her through my career in early childhood education.
I’m a preschool teacher. My job is important to me; in fact, it’s part of my identity. I’ve worked at some of the best preschools in the Seattle area, including the one I’m currently at.
Outside of the daily standardized tests, Grace Field House looks an awful lot like a high-quality preschool. The children spend most of their time playing freely outdoors, able to take risks, pursue their own interests, and socialize with each other. Isabella, who they call Mom, gives them lots of affection and care and feeds them nutritionally balanced meals.
It’s a great environment, or would be if it didn’t end with them being slaughtered. Isabella has created a warm and happy home for her charges, determined to give them a good life right up until their end.
Sometimes, working in early childhood is about trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Although I work primarily with preschool age now, my certification is in infant and toddler care. Parents generally put their children in group care at that age if they don’t have other alternatives; they can’t afford to have someone stay home full time and a nanny is too expensive. After all, studies have shown that it’s best to have a child at home up until the age of three.
In an ideal world, infant and toddler care—my specialty—wouldn’t need to exist, and it certainly wouldn’t involve one teacher being alone with seven one-year-olds or four infants. But exist it does, and so my colleagues and I try to make it as optimal as possible.
We provide them with a variety of opportunities for play and exploration. We teach them to socialize and care for each other. We learn how to respond to their developmental needs. Most of all, we love them, because that’s what they need most at that age—to love and feel loved. We love them, even though in a perfect world we wouldn’t have ever known them.
I don’t doubt that Isabella would prefer a world where the children in her care could grow up safe and happy with or without her, but the question of whether or not she loves them is not so cut-and-dried. She lives in a world where doing what’s best for her charges would mean death for her, and she’s nothing if not a shrewd survivalist. She sends the children she’s raised to their deaths and brutally breaks Emma’s leg to stop Norman and Ray from escaping. These are not acts of love.
Yet she does what she can. On top of raising them in a warm, joyful home, she tries to find ways to help them survive. She grooms Emma and Gilda to become moms themselves, as only the best and brightest girls can, because it’s the only way to live past adolescence in their hellish world.
As she walks Norman to his death, he asks if she’s happy, and she says, “I am, because I got to meet you.” When it becomes obvious that she can no longer stop the children from escaping, she doesn’t curse them, but hopes they’ll find a way to live in the dangerous world outside.
My worst days, when wildfire smoke fills the air and the news is full of doomsaying about climate change, are when I relate to Isabella the most. No matter how much I love the children I work with, I cannot save them. I don’t know what kind of world they’ll inherit, or—and this is what I think when the despair wells up within me and I start to feel like I’m drowning on dry land—if humanity will even make it to the twenty years in the future when they’ll be adults.
Isabella wants to provide the children of Grace Field House with an environment where they feel loved, even though she knows they’re doomed. Their world is controlled by monsters who only care about their well-being because intelligent children who grow up in ideal environments make the most delicious meals.
Our real world is run by monsters who only care about children’s well-being as far as how much money it can earn for them. All I can do is teach them to love and be loved, and to think and care about their world.
That’s the difference between Isabella and me, I guess. Isabella begs Emma to give in to despair for their world, to cease trying to escape the system and instead just focus on surviving it. She sees no hope for change, no point in trying to fight the power.
I fight the power every day, working with anti-bias curriculum and trying to instill in the kids I work with compassion and a sense of justice, for the world around them. To allow that dark despair to take over, to overwhelm my sense of purpose, would be to abandon my duties. Some days I’m scared, so, so scared, but I won’t give up on them and their future.
It’s strange—in the universe of The Promised Neverland, Isabella was born in 2014, the same year as many of the children I now work with. She inherited a terrible world, where she has to watch the children she raises be slaughtered right before her eyes just to survive.
As I write this article, surrounded by slumbering toddlers, I wonder what kind of world they’ll inherit. Will it be one similar to Isabella’s, that’s dangerous and threatening where they must fight to survive? Or will it be one where they can love freely and feel safe and accepted?