The memories I have of Thanksgiving week in grade school involve tracing a wavy crayon line around my small palm and fingers, then coloring it in to resemble a turkey. We would cut out strips of colorful construction paper to resemble a feathered headdress and reenact the traditional version of the first Thanksgiving feast.
If the two days I spent as a substitute this week at the neighborhood elementary school is any indication, times have changed.
The “town meeting” that started the school day Monday morning began with a thanksgiving book. Thank you was a recurring theme in the picture book projected through an iPad on the gymnasium movie screen, thank yous for everyone. No reference was made to the origins of this national holiday.
But kids these days aren’t completely oblivious to their national heritage. In reading workshop Tuesday morning I was listening to a 2nd grade student read aloud from Chapter 16 of a Judy Blume book, when her classmate across the table said, “Hey. Do you know what the real story of Thanksgiving is?”
I looked over. This was the same girl who had stared at me earlier that morning with no less surprise than if a giant purple hippopotamus was sitting in the front of her classrooms. There is a least one of these in every class. The shock of a new face is too much for some kids to process. Just the day before another kid had stormed in the room with “Who’s That?!”
The girl waited until she was sure I was listening and proceeded, “Um. The white people came and had a big party. And then, the next day, all the people that used to live there died. ‘Cause they poisoned them.”
Hm. Not far off, kid. So I redirected a little and said that now we use Thanksgiving as a day to celebrate our loved ones and give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. She was still skeptical, but let it slide.
The school is located in Burlington’s Old North End, the most diverse area in Vermont. This may not seem like much for a state that in 2011 was 95.5% white, but the O.N.E. is truly a diverse mix of culture, color and class.
Another notable event at the school Tuesday was the STEP program’s Thanksgiving feast. STEP is an acronym for Studying Toward English Proficiency and is a program mostly for children of recently immigrated and refugee families. The feast was a celebration for the students and their parents who were spending their first November in the United States. I don’t know what version they gave for the origins of the holiday.
In the wake of the Republican response to the recent Presidential election, this kind of new Thanksgiving seems particularly relevent. Many right-wing pundits and television personalities were calling 2012 the end of America as we know it, publishing “R.I.P. America” political cartoons and mourning the end of an era.
Political hyperbole is protected under the first amendment, but only in hindsight do we begin to notice the absurdity of some opinions and prejudiced. Take this opinion on the flush of Irish immigrants from the 1800s.
The theme continues. We are a country very afraid of sharing, but what do we really think we will lose? Maybe we should all go back to kindergarten and learn again what we still teach our children today. Often the adult laments the loss of child-like innocence, but we can still believe in the good of the world and its inhabitants. In fact, we must still believe. Because we can’t go back and take back small pox or give back the lands of every extinguished Native American tribe, but can change the Thanksgivings yet to come.
Perhaps the idealized version of the first Thanksgiving feast is a farce, but every third Thursday of November we can be true to that ideal. Let us share what we have from here forward, without the fear that our plates will end up sparse and our bellies empty. Trust and faith and a little bit of stuffing. Now that doesn’t sound so bad.