Elementary thoughts about Thanksgiving

Diana West
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Posted: Dec 03, 2002 12:00 AM
It should be elementary -- literally -- but my grade-schooler's teacher got it wrong: "Thanksgiving," the teacher wrote by way of introducing a book report assignment pegged to the national holiday, "is a time when families get together to celebrate their traditions and their heritage." They do? It was the "their"-ness of the formulation that gave pause. Defining Thanksgiving as an occasion for families to celebrate "their" traditions and "their" heritage, as the teacher styled it, imparted an international-night-at-the-community-center-flavor to a day of national thanksgiving. Could this spell the end of Turkey Day as we know it? Probably not. After all, families and friends across the country still gather to give thanks, feast on native cuisine, and perpetuate this picturesque, American (and spontaneously multicultural) tradition first cooked up back in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Indian guests, later institutionalized in 1863 by President Lincoln, and finally iconized in 1943 by Norman Rockwell. Our collective enthusiasm for that perfect founding moment lives. Thanksgiving is here to stay -- at least for now. But what if families did gather, say, next Thanksgiving Day to celebrate "their" traditions and "their" heritage? Given that Squanto was said to be the last member of the Patuxet tribe, it would follow that only Americans descended from Mayflower passengers would be entitled to "their" turkey dinner with all "their" trimmings -- leaving other Americans to "their" haggis, "their" brisket and "their" Peking duck. Luckily for the Mayflower-nots (not to mention the turkey growers of America), Thanksgiving has never been a day to mark our many separate traditions, but rather one to commemorate, very specifically -- right down to the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce -- a shared heritage nearly 400 years old. But this shared heritage is something American kids don't hear nearly enough about in school. Indeed, having presented a thoroughly botched holiday definition, my grade-schooler's book report instructions culminated in the following "Thanksgiving" reading assignment: "In an effort to understand the world better, we will read multicultural stories of family and immigration." The world? What happened to our country? Then again, why is it that the student novel-reader has to draw anything but a burgeoning appreciation for words and stories from a book-report assignment? Maybe it's just me, but if there's one thing worse than politically corrected history -- sorry, social studies -- it's politically selected reading -- sorry, language arts. Teaching a kid to see the big, hairy political hand hiding within the text of a history book is an education in itself; but riding herd on a child saddled with novels selected for ethnicity's sake -- and not literature's -- is a toilsome burden. You feel for the politically manipulated child, and if that same child has also extracted a promise from you not to you say anything this time, you feel party to the child's political manipulation. And then there's the fact that the pickings are what you call mighty slim. For Hispanic book month, for example, a children's librarian -- in all probability, a quite liberal one -- could find me paltry few identifiably "Hispanic" choices to recommend besides the uninspired and uninspiring American Doll book series that is built around "Josephina," the doll from New Mexico. So what to pick for a Thanksgiving-inspired reading assignment about "multicultural" families migrating hither and yon? When my youngster's choice, "Little House on the Prairie," was approved, I had to support it (especially since I just might have suggested it). Thankfully, the "cultural" in her assignment was "multi" to the point of including even Laura Ingalls Wilder's covered-wagon trek across the prairie. Having escaped political manipulation this time, I was still bothered by the assignment. Young American kids, newcomers to the country or not, shouldn't be pushed "to understand the world better" before they understand their own country even a little bit -- and particularly not around Thanksgiving. Besides, they want to learn about their land. It's in the nature of children to reflect on what is immediately at hand -- despite adult attempts to graft onto them a false worldly wisdom. A youngster I know recently brought home a small clay sculpture of some figures grouped around a table. Her mother looked at it, inquiring, "Are they tribal women making bread?" And the girl answered, "No, they're little girls at a birthday party." (Me, I said nothing.) One wonders -- not too hard -- which of the two has the deeper grounding in reality. Guess it's not always just the kids who could use a little extra guidance.