Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

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Black History Matters

February 19, 2017

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Yes, I know. All history matters.

However, it is necessary to make this proclamation because of the very nature of history itself. It is, after all, not just the telling of what happened in the past. It is the telling of what happened in the past from the perspective of those who are writing the history. In the words of Dan Brown, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ ”

The Arawak, Taino, and Caribe peoples of the Caribbean islands did not get to tell the story of Columbus and his “discovery” and subsequent conquest. Theirs would have been quite a different version than the one we have read for years in our grade school history books. So too did the Cherokee, Chippewa, Sioux, Blackfoot, Apache, and Navajo not get to describe the “taming of the West” as they knew it.

Nor did the slaves during that shameful two hundred forty-six year period in our history or their descendants who bore the oppressive burden of segregation have the opportunity to give voice to their experience for the greater populace to understand and appreciate.

This is the reason black history matters. And women’s history. And that of Native American Indians, Hispanics, and all others that have been traditionally disregarded. To ignore both the struggles and contributions of these groups is to taint the history of this country as incomplete and misleading.

Mention this year of Black History Month has been all too scarce (other than the hollow Trump statement with its ridiculous reference to Frederick Douglas). I would have hoped this is because we have reached a time of greater enlightenment. However, the present climate in which both emboldened intolerance and the phenomenon of “alternative facts” have gotten a foothold would indicate otherwise.

It is unacceptable for the American people as a whole to not have proper knowledge of a significant part of our population, especially since it has had an integral role in shaping the very nation we have become. It is important to recognize the impact — both on the perpetrators and the victims — of the  slave trade: the abject misery of the Middle Passage, the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured, and their ensuing life in America as mere property. For a country which purports to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all, it is necessary to recognize that we imposed such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then after the Civil War, though supposedly free, the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. We as a nation should also be inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice and by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds, lessons unfortunately still applicable to this day.

It is clear that there is work in this area remaining to be done if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.” We will need all members of our society to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of the past and its continued effect on the present. It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough insincere politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize and affirm its past, shortcomings as well as successes. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

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The Hourglass

October 19, 2015

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“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

Seeing one’s life clearly is never an easy task, even as the passing years mount. I have entered a period of deep reflection brought on by the startling deaths of two friends and furthered by my recent birthday. Both of these heightened my awareness of mortality, and both prompted thoughts about my own life.

So today on this Evaluate Your Life Day, I shall attempt to do that in some small way.

My life has been that of a teacher. It has been my calling and passion for as long as I can remember and my reality since I have been an adult. But when I look back, I dwell on my shortcomings, and I am often filled with regret by thoughts of my failures and disappointment over what I should have done differently or better, even if those things were in actuality beyond my ability to change.

I think back to my Peace Corps days in the Philippines walking through the abject poverty of the slums of Manila and the outstretched needy hands I walked by, the total destruction of the typhoons that swept through the islands with little help forthcoming while I had a safe place to be and food to eat, the bare schoolhouses in the barrios filled with children who lived with no electricity or running water that I was supposed to be helping. I walked through the village in which I lived knowing that my $75 a month salary made me the richest person there. I should have done more.

I think of my early years teaching in Newark, thirty-five kids before me in the classroom with a dearth of materials, an idealistic young teacher knowing the bleak path that lay before so many of those wide-eyed youngsters living in tenements where often several children slept in the same bed, no desk at which to study, no books on a shelf to read, surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and violence. I found myself in a war against disadvantage and poverty. I should have battled longer.

I think of those students in Rutherford who I did not reach, the athletes on the teams I coached that I failed to help, the colleagues with whom I worked that I might have done more for. I think of the times I could have shown more patience, better judgment, a cooler head, or simple kindness but did not. I should have tried harder.

I feel the weight of each person I let down, and I am ashamed.

But in the wake of the recent death of my good friend and on the day of my birthday I received some wonderful messages from former students. I am grateful to them for their kind words for they lifted my spirits at a time when I needed it, and they filled my heart. I think they helped give me a perspective of my own life in a way that I could never do on my own.

One of them spoke of the common phenomenon of carrying things unsaid inside and how it sometimes takes drastic circumstances to finally articulate them. I understand this, for I have done it far too often myself.

On the occasion of my retirement, I wrote a letter in which I did articulate many of the unsaid things I kept within me through all my years of teaching. I repeat them now for they remain true, and though they may not be the evaluation I find so difficult to make even as the sand continues to escape my hourglass, they lay bare my ideals and the standards I held for myself. I can only hope I lived up to them at least some of the time.

Here is what I had — and still have — to say:

I have always felt unable to evaluate myself as a teacher or what I had or had not accomplished. I don’t know for sure what I did, but I do know what I wanted.

In my classroom I wanted to be Hendrix, Coltrane, Picasso. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield protecting children from harm as they wandered in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff, to protect the vulnerable and the innocent and relieve the pain that circumstance so often has inflicted upon them. I wanted to disperse the tenderness of those who give comfort in times of need.

I wanted my students to recognize the power, the beauty, the joy, the mystery of language. I wanted them to understand that those weren’t just words on a page, the drudgery of the school kid’s routine, but were the wisdom, the experience, the heart and spirit of another human being and that somewhere out there exists a story or poem or novel or play that will reach into them and shake their very souls. I wanted them to know that the sometimes seemingly futile search is worth it.

I wanted them to be exposed to writing of all sizes, shapes, and origins beyond those contained within school books, to know that there is a sea of possibility beyond the horizon they are used to. I wanted them to meet and come to know Atticus and Jem and Scout, Romeo and Juliet, Buddy and his dear old cousin not just as answers to trivia questions but as beings that exist within them.

I wanted those who sat before me to open their eyes, see the world as it was, as it is, as it might be. I wanted them to recognize that improving one’s own skills in the art of using our wonderful, wacky language will contribute to the ability to express the unique and invaluable perspectives of what they see.

I wanted school not to be fear and boredom, but enlightenment, acceptance, and in those best of times, magic. I wanted to be of service to others, to be useful, to make some kind of difference in this life.

And I still do.

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The Curious Incident of the Ninja Turtle in the Daytime

May 5, 2015

I first noticed him in the hallway in his fourth grade class line on the way to or from gym or the library. It was not easy to miss him. He was two heads taller than his classmates and probably twice as heavy. His clothes were an odd mix and match of tie-dyed t-shirts or flannels and corduroy pants pulled up too high, his hair an uncombed bush above his chubby face.

But it was not his physical attributes that set Jonas apart. He would be in another world even as he stood amongst his classmates in the noisy bustle of the school corridor, his eyes looking off to an unknown destination, his hands moving as if conducting some invisible orchestra, quietly talking or humming to himself.

He seemed to be a harmless gentle soul, kind of a giant lost puppy. I did not know at the time that he was autistic, but when I learned that fact, I was not surprised. However, there was nothing particularly eventful about his presence until Halloween.

The school day Halloween is celebrated — a Friday, in this instance — is one of the greatest days of all for an elementary school kid along with Christmas and the last day before summer. The air of excitement is palpable the whole week before with parties to be planned (who’s bringing in the cupcakes? the popcorn? the drinks?), tissue ghost decorations to be made, and costumes to be decided upon. Being in an upper grade class with the adolescents who were now too cool to be bothered much (on the outside, at least) kept me a bit insulated from the festive atmosphere, but when the younger ones were about, the mood was contagious.

Walking back to my room after lunch on the Big Day, I rounded the corner to see Jonas facing the wall and wailing uncontrollably, his face beet red. He was gasping for breath from crying so hard, tears virtually shooting from his eyes the way they do when small children bawl. He was rocking forward and back in his agony, hands flailing about wildly.

It stopped me in my tracks, so heart-wrenching was the scene. He was surrounded by several teachers, kind and caring ones I was glad to see, who were trying their hardest to soothe him.

“Don’t worry, Jonas, maybe we won’t have to serve detention today.”

“Everything will be all right. Just breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. It’s okay.”

The nurse arrived, and the last glimpse I had as I retreated down the hall to my waiting class was Jonas being led down to her office.

The school’s Halloween parade was scheduled for one o’clock in the playground, an annual affair accompanied by parents with faces buried in video cameras and “Ghostbusters” and “Monster Mash” blasting from the speakers brought out for the occasion. The upper grade teachers led their jaded teens to the perimeter to watch the proceedings. Try as they might to hide it, they too got into the spirit as the little ones came prancing out grade by grade: Power Rangers and Little Mermaids and hobos and Barbies and even a few homemade creations (a laundry basket, a milk carton).

I saw one of the young teachers who had been trying to help Jonas, and I went over to her to ask what had occurred. She told me how in his excitement about the imminent festivities he had misbehaved in his regular class and got his Name Put on the Board. In his mind he thought it doomed his participation in the much-anticipated afternoon, and he reacted accordingly. I asked if the crisis was resolved and if he felt better, and she reassured me it was and he did. Any lingering doubts I might have had about her assessment disappeared immediately, for at that very moment, out came the fourth graders, Jonas in the lead.

It just so happened that the line stopped for some group singing and photo ops right in front of my class. Jonas’s beaming smile reflected his unrestrained joy as he looked about him, oblivious to the program, just basking in the moment, standing there swaying to the music in his jumbo-sized Ninja Turtle costume as if it were all the ecstasy one could hope for on any given day. As his peers sang along, he would contentedly look at his costume, poking the Ninja padding on his arms as if in disbelief that he could be so lucky to be thusly attired. The huge smile never once left his face.

His emotional resurrection so filled my heart, I had to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes. As the line of children resumed their march and wound their way back inside, I thought of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his desire to protect the children from harm as they played in the field wandering in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff. I wanted Jonas and all the vulnerable and the innocent like him protected in the same way, impossible a task as it may be. I thought of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and the pain that autism and circumstance had inflicted upon him as well as the tenderness of those who watched over him. And I was glad that there really do exist such people who actually are real-life catchers in the rye, compassionate and smiling-in-the-face-of-adversity angels like those teachers in the hallway with Jonas that morning. I hope they are always around, just when they are needed, for there are so many Jonases in the world. Who else will give them comfort in their times of need? It is my prayer that one will always be there, just in the nick of time.

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No Ordinary Camps

February 19, 2015

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On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued by the President of the United States. It authorized the internment (a less controversial term for imprisonment) of people of Japanese descent for the duration of World War II because of security worries. It had been considered by some to be a necessary precaution to be taken during a time of war. It is now considered to be one of the great miscarriages of justice in the history of this country.

The reason for this mass confinement on the West Coast had more to do with war hysteria compounded by racism, paranoia, and fear than it did any real threat. The 127,000 people who were incarcerated had done nothing wrong. They simply happened to be of Japanese heritage. They were small business owners and teachers and gardeners and stay-at-home moms. Not one crime had been committed. No spying at military installations. No sabotage of public works. No anti-American rhetoric. Sixty percent of them were American-born children and citizens of this country. Nonetheless, they were unceremoniously rounded up and shipped off to camps in remote inhospitable locations in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and California.

These were not the camps of our typical American memories. There was no making of brightly colored lanyards during craft time, no canoeing on a lake or splashing around along its shore, no fun-filled days of games and evenings toasting s’mores around a campfire. Instead these camps boasted cramped bare barracks, some of them former horse stalls with spaces in the walls where the brutal winter wind could whistle through. Rationed food and a minimum of coal to provide heat throughout the frigid winters. Overcrowding and a constant lack of privacy. A surrounding fence bristling with barbed wire and armed guards manning 30-caliber machine guns in watchtowers. Not just for two weeks either but all year long, for years on end, taken away from home, friends, and all that had been familiar.

The names of these camps are most likely unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans who were not affected by this action: Manzanar, Topaz, Tanforan, Heart Mountain. Given the euphemistic name Relocation Centers, these were prison camps plain and simple, and the bitter memories of those camps and what they signified lingered for decades for those who experienced them. They echo still in their descendants who know the stories all too well. Unfortunately, the rest of America knows or cares little about this sad chapter in our history.

And why not, some would say. Let the past be the past.

The past is indeed the past, but its lessons must not be forgotten, for as we have seen all too often throughout human history, the past will otherwise repeat itself.

When I taught eighth grade English, I came upon a story in our literature anthology entitled “The Bracelet.” Written by Yoshiko Uchida who as a young woman had been one of those imprisoned, it told the story of one girl’s life during the internment. The distress caused by this abrupt uprooting of families and the difficult adaptation to their harsh new environment could be felt through the experience of this young girl as she tried to cope with the pain and confusion of an inexplicable injustice.

I was told by my supervisor not to use the story. Apparently the district felt that our fourteen year old students didn’t have the capacity to understand (or perhaps the recognition that they would). I used the story anyway; it seemed wrong not to. Hiding from the unsettling truths of the past does not eliminate them. Learning about them might help prevent future occurrences.

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The vast majority of the students knew little about that period of time. We examined together the mood of the country after the Pearl Harbor attack, discussed the newsreels shown in theaters across the country in the pre-TV era that portrayed the Japanese as ruthless killers, giving them a grotesque vermin-like appearance. We read articles that argued the pros and cons of imprisoning these people, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s own opposition to this action. I ended the unit with a persuasive writing composition in which the students could argue either for or against Executive Order 9066. The vast majority were against this mass incarceration.

This was the case each year until 2001 when this academic exercise took on a very real spin. After the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, a new wave of hysteria swept over America, only this time it was not against the Japanese-Americans. What followed was an often ugly reaction against Muslim-Americans (or anyone mistaken for them). I am quite sure that if a new version of Executive Order 9066 had been proposed, great support would have been voiced. The fact that the targets of this outcry had nothing to do with the attack mattered little. If you are a member of a group, you bear the burden of complicity for the action of any member of the group regardless of the superficiality of the connection to it. Such is the nature of stereotype. Suddenly the rational arguments took on a whole new meaning, resulting in a reexamination of what once seemed such an obvious conclusion.

I have no solutions to offer as I reflect on this latest anniversary of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans. I wish I did. I will note the following, though. The last prison camp closed in 1946. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law. This legislation offered a formal apology to the Japanese-Americans wrongly incarcerated. It took forty-two years to do so. Restitution was also paid, $20,000 to each surviving victim, this the price deduced for the loss of homes, businesses, dignity, and four years of their lives. The Civil Liberties Act is now displayed alongside the original Executive Order 9066 at the National Archives.

John Tateishi, a Japanese-American involved in the movement which campaigned for redress, said, “You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.”

Only time will tell.

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Christmas, Room 26

December 18, 2014

The Christmas season is one like no other. There is an infectious good spirit in the air, and for kids, an atmosphere of anticipation that is palpable. It is also a time of year steeped in tradition, and during my twenty-five years in Room 26, I came to institute several of my own.

That was the English classroom in which the eighth graders of Pierrepont School spent their agonizing days waiting for Christmas to arrive. Always a time of considerable rambunctiousness and lack of concentration, I thought about what lessons I could teach knowing full well that the battle for their attention would be fierce. I wanted something that would capture the humanity embodied in the Christmas season regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or cultural background while still containing educational value.

At first I decided upon a story that happened to be in the literature anthology we used. “A Christmas Memory,” wonderfully seasonal, touching, and well-written, had all the qualities I wanted. The author happened to be Truman Capote, whom I knew only from In Cold Blood, a work most definitely not seasonal. I found out that this was the story of an episode from his own childhood, a time when his parents had left him to live in Alabama with strictly religious and somewhat cold-hearted relatives. The one exception was an elderly cousin, a woman who is written about with such tenderness even though we never even learn her name. Capote introduces her to the reader in simple but beautiful description (the point of the lesson, as far as the anthology was concerned):

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Capote proceeds to tell how they went about making those fruitcakes, an annual enterprise that took quite a bit of time and effort, as well as their preparations for Christmas. During the many small adventures they encountered along the way, we come to know the heart and soul of this cousin well. On the surface this may sound torpid, but it is anything but. Such pure and simple beauty shines through both the words and the people who inhabit them. The relationship between Buddy and his friend resonates strongly for anyone who has had this kind of intimate connection with someone else, and I still remember passages from this story — especially the heartbreaking closing one —  to this day.

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Several years later, I discovered quite by accident another story that I knew I just had to use with my classes. We spent Christmases with my wife’s family, and while we were at my sister-in-law’s house, she brought out a book of Christmas stories with the idea that somebody should read one to enhance the Yuletide spirit. However, these stories from a collection entitled Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant were not the traditional ones I had expected. I thumbed through it and saw a title which drew me, “All the Stars in the Sky.” Since no one else had volunteered, I began to read aloud.

It was the story of Mae, a homeless woman and her three dogs (sadly only one of whom had a name), who had been on the street for so many years she no longer remembered her past. That included Christmas. Feeling poorly and in search of food, she stumbles into the unlocked door of a library closed for the night.

After finding food for herself and the dogs, she comes upon a Christmas display. She sits on the floor in the liquid light of a fish tank and sees a basket of books. She begins to look at them, first one with pictures about a snowman who comes to life and flies off with a boy, and then another:

“It has words, so Mae nearly puts it back down, but the pictures of the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky hold her and Mae turns the pages slowly, curled into her cushion, and breathes deep and quiet, and looks.

Mae looks at every book in the basket while her dogs sleep. Every Christmas book in the basket.

Then she lays her head against Marty and she sleeps too.”

Some small ember still alive deep within Mae, some distant memory of her own childhood and Christmases past, is stirred even if Mae is not conscious of it. She leaves the library in the morning:

“Mae walks with her dogs, her stomach full, not sick anymore, and a sign in a store window says ‘Merry Christmas!’ but Mae sees only a snowman flying and a woman and a baby and stars and stars and stars.”

It brought me to tears as I read, voice quavering with sobs, startling my wife and sister-in-law, some deep well of emotion within me tapped by this story. I’m not sure why this was so. It has the same effect on me to this day.

When my students read it, I could see many of them felt the same way. I always asked them to answer a question about whether or not this story should be read by kids. A few of them said no because of its sadness, but the majority said yes. They believed it served as a reminder to those of us who have families and a warm home and people who care about us not to take those things for granted. That recognition alone made this lesson worthwhile.

One last addition was made to my December repertoire that became a real favorite both for the students and me: A Christmas Story. For years during breaks in our holiday dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I had watched together with my young niece and nephew Jean Shepherd’s whimsical tale of childhood desire for the perfect gift. When I came into possession of a VCR copy, I immediately installed it as a permanent part of my pre-Christmas lesson plans.

It was perfect. It had the timeless humor of the misadventures of a kid growing up: struggles with the neighborhood bully, attempted manipulation of parents and teachers, stupid acts spurred on by the dares of a friend, and navigating the oddities of the various personalities surrounding us as we grow up. But there was also great tenderness between the very people who sometimes experienced a clash of wills, all of this in the delightful atmosphere of Christmastime in small town America.

My only worry was that my students would have already seen it. This turned out not to be the case. Some students were totally unfamiliar with it. Others had seen bits and pieces but never the entire thing. Those that had seen it in its entirety were enthusiastic about seeing it again. I understand why; I must have watched this gem scores of times and have never tired of it. Each Christmas I along with my now-grown niece and nephew laugh anew at so many of the unforgettable scenes: Ralphie’s bunny pajama present from his aunt, his father’s “major award” leg lamp with fishnet stockings, Ralphie’s first big curse in front of his father, Flick’s triple-dog-dare-caused tongue stuck to the flagpole, the dinner at the Chinese restaurant. Each vignette becomes a reference point to episodes in our own lives as we watch the trials and tribulations of Ralphie in his quest for that Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. In spite of the time period of the story, so much has remained the same about childhood Christmases, and this story manages to capture it.

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I often wonder if my students remember any of these stories from back then, or if encountered again now do they recall their experience with them in my class. Even though I’m no longer in that room at this time of year, I still think back to those days sharing both the sorrow and laughter of Buddy and Mae and Ralphie in the spirit of the season, and at least for me, these stories we savored together are forever part of the fabric of my own Christmas memories.

 

 

 

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Forked Tongue

November 17, 2014
Want a cigar?

Want a cigar?

Several recent events have impelled me to think once again about Indians. The Native American ones. You know, Tonto, Geronimo, like that. This used to be an annual occurrence when I taught in my eighth grade classroom, for November is Native American Heritage Month.

The reaction of many, I’m afraid, is “so what.” Well, the so what happens to involve a huge chunk of the past of this nation as well as a lingering problem of accurate history (perhaps an oxymoron) versus what passes for “common knowledge.”

This current rumination began with my adult ESL class when a discussion about November turned to Thanksgiving. Many of my foreign-born students had virtually no knowledge of this holiday. Those that did received their information from their children in school. I asked them what they knew, and I got the Pollyanna version that has remained more or less unchanged since I went to elementary school. You know the one, where smiling Pilgrims in their buckled hats gather joyfully in the spirit of friendship with equally jolly Indians around a table loaded with turkey and all the fixings. They noticed me looking askance at them and asked me why.

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I had some misgivings about bursting this bubble of American mythology, but when I asked if they wanted to know the real story, they insisted. I felt somewhat like the adult school version of Michael Moore as I told of the conflict between the indigenous people of this land and the foreign interlopers whose voyage had been bankrolled by merchants more interested in material gains than spiritual ones. This then led to a reexamination of Christopher Columbus whose image as the stalwart discoverer of the New World is tarnished by his abysmal treatment of the Indians (a misnomer for which he is responsible) whom he encountered and subsequently viciously subjugated. There is no mention of this in the school version either.

Additionally, since the beginning of this football season, I’ve been following the controversy that has resurfaced as of late concerning the name of the professional football team in Washington. Is Redskins an appropriate term to use, or does it smack of cultural insensitivity? This supposed “honoring” of a people who, after all, were the target of a shameful genocide, is widespread in our country. I shudder at the sight of the Cleveland Indians logo, a grotesque caricature of a Native American. Numerous universities have appropriated  the names of tribes as their own and have trivialized a proud culture for their benefit (the Florida State Seminoles and their cloying “war chant” come to mind). This is true of high schools as well with scores using Redmen or Redskins and hundreds of others Indians as their nickname. Five schools in Oklahoma are called Savages, and Aniak High School in Alaska even uses the name Halfbreeds. What other heritage is subjected to this treatment? What would the reaction be if schools were called the Blackskins or Yellowskins, the Caucasians or the Jews?

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Picture your heritage here…

This may seem of little consequence on the surface, but it reflects an endemic attitude about the native peoples of this country as well as great ignorance of the facts. To me, that is troubling in a nation that insists it embraces tolerance, acceptance, and equality. The problem is reinforced in schools. The younger children are fed a diet of sugar-coated misinformation, while in the upper grades most history books have been dismissive of American Indians in a few paragraphs usually characterizing them as a temporary obstacle in the path of our journey to becoming a great nation. This in the land of the free with liberty and justice for all, none of which, however, was available to the indigenous people, a matter quite conspicuous in its absence. No mention of the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the miserable exile on the bleak lands of the reservation, or the abjectly dismal record of one hundred percent of the more than five hundred treaties signed then broken by the United States government.

The truth is clear; an institutional effort was made to contain, remove, or eradicate the Indians. The legitimized slaughter of American Indians reflected the values of the time during which Indians were considered subhuman “savages” whose elimination was much the same as the killing of wild animals. The fact that we (in both cases) encroached on their land and declared it our own seems to be besides the point. The governments of certain states (including New Jersey) promoted this practice by offering the incentive of scalp bounties. George Washington himself compared Indians to wolves and called for their annihilation. Though these practices were eventually stopped, the mindset they fostered still lingers in many to this day.

Those who would defend these acts point to the violence committed by the Indians against the colonists and settlers. This is also fact, but it must be looked at in the perspective of the situation. I used to do this exercise with my students before the introduction of Native American Heritage Month. Entitled “Invasion of America,” I presented the following scenario. America has been invaded. The invaders have superior weapons and have captured or killed many. They are advancing and taking over most of the land. Some defenders have given up and fallen under their control and suffered great mistreatment. What would you do? Would you fight using any means necessary to protect your land and people? Years later, others who look at this will have an opinion about what happened. Who do you think they will feel was wrong in what they did, the invaders or those who resisted?

The majority responded as one might expect — they said they would fight. The invaders have no right to take our land and kill our people. It is clear that they are wrong in what they did. This happens to be the exact circumstance of the Indians, but many Americans have great difficulty in accepting the application of the conclusion above when it makes us the bad guys. However, if we are to be a truly great country, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, not cover them up or make excuses for them, for to do so merely diminishes our stature and makes us appear hypocritical (particularly when we are critical of the record of other countries in such matters).

It also doesn’t help that the portrayal of the Indian in popular culture over the years has been wildly divergent from the extremes of the “noble savage” (Tonto, Dances With Wolves) to “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (most early cowboys-and-Indians movies and TV shows). I would hope that people seek out a more accurate and balanced representation (the work of Native American writers like Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, and N. Scott Momaday, or historical books such as Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, for example). The basic understanding that we are descendants of other nations now living on the land that once belonged to an indigenous people who are mostly stereotyped, disparaged, or forgotten should be recognized by every American who is not an Indian. That this is not the case bothers me, and until it is, we cannot truly be what we as a nation want to believe we are.

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The Last Class

June 23, 2014

It is June. Summer weather is finally upon us. A perceptible shift in attitude can be felt as people’s vacation plans grow closer to becoming reality. It is a season of beaches and weddings and college students returning home. And, as it happens each year, it is when another high school class graduates.

This year, though, it is not just another class that is graduating. It is my last class, the one I had four years ago as eighth graders. This is the group of youngsters who helped me write the final chapter of my forty-year career in the classroom, and a special group it was.

It was a fitting class to be my last, one that left me with so many fond memories, one with so many unforgettable students — good scholars, creative thinkers, free spirits, and kind-hearted souls. And some of them were amongst the best young writers I’d ever taught.

This means quite a bit to me, and not just because I was an English teacher. Through their writing, I learned much about these developing minds as they struggled to make sense of this crazy world. I witnessed their growing sense of how they fit into it and the many possible paths that may lie ahead of them. I got to know them, and that is why I will remember them even as they move on into their futures.

I saved copies of many of their compositions, and looking back at them makes me both proud and happy. They wrote about a great variety of topics, often pushing themselves far beyond what could have been just one more school assignment. They put their hearts and souls into their words, writing about 9/11, what it is like to experience the injustice of prejudice, the true meaning of Memorial Day, how it’s not easy being green. They listened to me ramble on about the road to real learning, what John Dewey said and the kitchen table vs. the file cabinet. They visited the Little Rock Guys with regularity, depositing the results of their ruminations for me to marvel over. I hope they know how much I appreciated their efforts. I hope they know how much I miss them.

I was fortunate to be able to watch their continued growth through high school. Some of them became part of the track team on which I was a volunteer coach. Others continued writing for the school newspaper or in the literary magazine. Chance encounters revealed the many changes they had undergone, and I couldn’t help but think of the profound ones looming ahead as they become adults.

Part of me is saddened, for their departure is a symbol of my own. I had felt a connectedness to the school and the community that I’m not sure will remain. Tomorrow they will walk together one final time to receive diplomas and venture forth into the next chapters of their lives. I know that as they make their own way in the world, my last year together with them will fade in their memory. But in the end, I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to share, even if for just that short time, a part of their journey .

class of 2010