Of History and Holidays at JFK Elementary School – November, 2011

A Teachable Moment Revisited [Written in response to controversy over how our schools approach Halloween, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving}

When I was growing up Christopher Columbus as all about the brave explorer who sailed the ocean blue. I owned a book that had on the back cover a drawing of a little Pilgrim boy and a little Indian boy tugging on a turkey wishbone. “Indians” were cardboard cut out characters like Tonto and little plastic figures with bows and arrows that my brother played with. “Geronimo” was something you yelled before jumping in a pile of leaves.

Gradually we learn that some aspects of history have been glossed over. Take the quest for religious freedom, the cornerstone of the Pilgrims’ story – who knew it was an outcome of the violent War between the Roses – which determined which line of the Tudor family would rule England, and pitted Christian against Christian? Some misperceptions are small; technically speaking, Columbus didn’t land in America, but somewhere in the Caribbean. Some are more important; that it was more than insatiable wanderlust that sent Columbus to sea. He sailed to find a new trade route to the Indies (there was a profit motive). It is very hard not to love the history we learn as children. Learning that there are dark sides to what are generally considered heroic acts can feel like giving up on the vain of goodness that runs deep though our national narrative.

So what should we, tell our son, who is in sixth grade at the Kennedy School about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving? He’s old enough to understand that there are more to “Indians” then the boy with the wishbone. Eventually, he’ll learn about Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. Eventually, he’ll learn about the Ursaline Convent fire, and “No Irish Need Apply”, our own contributions to Christian on Christian violence. Eventually, he’ll learn that both in the past, and in the present, parts of human existence are truly horrifying.

So what should we tell him? Saying “Sorry, wish things were different,” or “ It’s the way of the world” or “Can’t do anything about it” seems overwhelmingly pessimist. Perhaps, in the long run, what we tell him isn’t as important as how we help him think through what he’s learning, to help him see and begin to understand how oppression operates in our past and in our present. And we need to help him understand that it is courage, hope and community that bends long arch of history towards justice. Maybe this is something we can talk about as we roll out the crusts for the apple and pumpkin pies.

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