In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
It’s amazing the things people discover by accident. Discovering that my sons where learning the poem that began with those lines was the end of my children’s public education. You see, I don’t pay attention to Columbus Day. Other than wishing there was a hell for him to burn in every October 12th, I could care less about the man and the day dedicated to him. So when I decided to pop in on my sons’ class a year ago today, it was not to make some social political statement about the use of erroneous history in our school systems. I didn’t even realize the date yet. Being self-employed just gave me the luxury to find out how they were adjusting to being in the same class.
We had been trying to keep the twins in different rooms, letting them develop their own personalities and reputations separately. These early years are the most important ones for children to discover themselves. In Pre-K a teacher notoriously said to me “Your son hit Mary during recess”, to which I responded “Which son?” and she answered, “I don’t know, one of them”. I couldn’t believe she had the nerve to say that to me. What was I supposed to do with that information? Was I supposed to punish both of them? My sons are twins, and I don’t expect people who see them on only Thanksgiving and Christmas to tell them apart, but this was their teacher. Their differences are obvious, from the shapes of their faces, their height and build, the sounds of their voices, and their general approach to life.
Here in the 1st grade, they had both tested into the T.A.G. (Talented and Gifted) class, and there was only one of those classes in the school. We could have picked which one was going to stay in the class, to keep them separated, but then that seemed unfair to the one not getting the more rigorous education. Their mom and I aren’t the easiest parents to deal with in the public school system setting. We have our own ideas about what was appropriate for our children, going as far as telling the teacher and principal in kindergarten not to expect our sons to have their homework done all the time. It was just too much, and we planned on letting them just be 5. Our belligerence might have been more bearable if we weren’t so active, but at least twice a month both of us where in the classroom, and Eshe was volunteering so much at the school that she went on field trips with children that weren’t even her own.
So here they were at the beginning of the school year, in the same classroom, with an obviously talented and caring teacher. She was 8 months pregnant when the school year started, and was counting down the days to leave. You could feel it in the air. So when she was replaced by a long term substitute, a retired teacher they brought back for the months the original teacher was on maternity leave, we weren’t upset about it. She was old school. I don’t think she had the energy to have lasted the whole year but she was a loving and determined teacher, giving the kids all she had for the few months she was substituting. On the day I happened to walk into the classroom, she had just started the day’s lesson on Christopher Columbus.
October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!
As an educator myself, I know that the 1492 poem isn’t used in schools any more. At least not used in schools where the parents of the students actually read books like Zinn’s “A People’s History”. Maybe (shoot probably) in places like Texas, where they have replaced the term “slave holders” with “planters” in the history books, they still have their students read fanciful recollections of our countries glorious founding. But in Maryland you won’t find the 1492 poem unless it has been heavily edited to be more factually correct. My sons joined their classmates in working on the handouts the teacher on maternity leave had left. It was pretty much factual. Columbus set sail and landed in the Bahamas. It didn’t go into how much of a mistake it was, maybe just mentioning it. I would have had my students using a thesaurus to find new synonyms for “dumb-ass” to describe Columbus, but I had missed my chance to be the radical teacher. This is the reality we are faced with. This is the education my children are going to receive, and I have to find ways to augment it separately. Then the substitute, in what she thought was a stroke of genius, pulled out the teaching material she had been using her whole career to teach about Columbus. She passed this lie of a poem to every student in the classroom. Me, trying to stay cool and remember the rules of observing a class, waited until she was by herself to tell her that I am positive she is not supposed to use this poem. “It isn’t true” I tell her. “But it rhymes, so it’s easy to remember, and the kids love it!” she says with a smile. I’m a smart ass, with a desire to argue and debate in the marrow of my bones. I have no idea how I was able to let her say that and not respond. She didn’t say “no, it is true” she said “but it rhymes, it’s easy to remember and the kids love it”. I could have had a field day on her ass. That would have made me the angry black radical in her class. I didn’t have time for that.
I pulled Olu and Dela to the side instead, kneeled down real low so I could look them in their eyes, and said “hey guys, you are doing a great job in class today. I just want you to know that this poem about Columbus is bullshit (I’ve taught my sons that curse words should be used sparingly, and to only accentuate an important point) and Columbus was one of the worst people. Ever! We’ll talk about it more later”.
This Columbus Day gaffe strikes extra close to home, and made me feel even more convicted about my initial promise to homeschool my children, because at one point I was training to be a high school history teacher. Back in the 1996, I was a wide eyed freshman at the University of Maryland, who knew deep in his heart all he wanted to be was a teacher. After enrolling in the school of education as a secondary ed and history major, I had all the fanciful dreams of teaching kids the “real” history of America. These dreams came to a screeching halt when I had a conversation in 1997 with one of my frat brothers’ mother who was a teacher. I gave her my pie in the sky reasoning for teaching kids history and she tells me, “you are going to be frustrated your whole career. You won’t be allowed to teach history the way you are imagining it. There is going to be a curriculum and a script you must stick to, and that’s it”. I discovered that being a public school teacher wasn’t for me. I can’t live other people’s inconsistencies. Maybe my own, but being paid to teach children something I didn’t believe would have driven me mad.
“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.
This sent my young idealistic mind into a tail spin that I have never recovered from. Trust me, my closest friends and the people I admire most are educators. Our nations school system is setup to teach our children “what to think” more than it is “how to think”, but teachers everywhere (especially here in the state of Maryland) are dedicated to giving students comprehension tools and life lessons beyond the facts that are crammed into their heads to pass standardized tests. I have no fear that my children would be okay in the public school system, but my goal for my children is for them to be more than okay. I don’t want my sons to discover the African diaspora, and the world before European domination at a later age. I want them to know the history of where they are from first, and learn this alien system second. Discovering later what it means to be part Cape Verdean, descendants of West Africans, part Native American people of South Carolina, and how these people had their own civilizations before being virtually annihilated by those who followed Columbus, is not the perspective I want for them. Discovering that I had forfeited control of the process was too much for me to handle. Realizing that the school hadn’t even started deifying the slave-holding founding fathers was giving me nightmares.
By some stroke of fate I had stumbled into my children’s class on the right day. But unlike Christopher Columbus, stumbling like a toddler onto the “new world” and destroying it, I discovered my reasons for originally wanting to homeschool. This forced me to rededicate myself to that mission. Homeschooling has not been easy. I am still learning how to balance my business and homeschooling, with homeschooling being the top priority. But I have discovered many resources and a village of people willing to help our children become the people we know they can be. I hope to share more of that in this blog and in my art as we discover new ways to see the world. But today I thank Columbus, well, the teacher who shouldn’t have had my sons read that Columbus poem. It was the discovery I needed.
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
At four o’clock Eshe called me with anger in her voice “I can’t believe the teacher gave them that damn 1492 poem! They had it in their hands when they left the building. I took it out of their hands and ripped it up. I’m sure all the other parents thought I was crazy. I don’t even care! I told them that this wasn’t true and they said ‘I know, Daddy already told us’. Remember when we were talking about homeschooling?”