This I Believe

Caroline - Scarsdale, New York
Entered on November 15, 2006

The Nina, the Papa and the Fifty Centamaria

I know it is fall when I start having to pull all-nighters to sign my kids’ school permission slips, when I have an inexplicable craving for candy corn and when the guy who is supposed to come and close what used to be my pool but is now just a very large and very soggy pile of leaves starts “leaving his cell phone at home.” (Like I believe you, Bill!)

I also know that it is fall when, in order to make room in the backpacks for the permission slips, I remove crumpled art work featuring the three ships of Columbus. This year my kindergartener proudly explained his picture to me. “This is the Nina, the Papa and the Fifty Centamaria,” he said and then immediately began looking for scotch tape to hang it up in a central location. (Neither of us understand why our stainless steel fridge has no magnetic properties, but he doesn’t let this stand in his exhibitionist way.) I’m about to suggest that I take it to work to hang in my office when I realize that I already have there a slightly faded picture of Columbus’s ships, made by his older brother. And this got me thinking about a whole other kind of stickiness, one more mystifying than the magnet thing.

When do the three construction paper-and-crayon ships become instead the story of conquest and genocide, as it certainly is for many peoples who are oppose holidays such as Columbus day?

This is not the first time I have sailed on the troubled waters of history. We lived in St. Louis during the Bicentennial of Lewis and Clark, a fantastic story of exploration that is completely child-proofed: no violent fatalities and an incredibly loyal dog. But of course, the Trail of Tears is as clear on the horizon of that story as the millions of buffalo were when Lewis and Clark stood up out of the canoe and got a good look at the plains. In a few years, fewer buffalo and fewer Native Americans.

After a visit to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, I could tell that my son felt shaken by the exhibits on slavery. Living in close proximity to the Land of Lincoln, he had an uncommon knowledge of our sixteenth president. But we had been dancing around the slavery bit since he also had the uncommon experience, thanks to voluntary desegregation in our public school, of having African American friends. How fantastic, we thought, to have a period of time where exploration is nonviolent, where race is unconnected to the pain of American history!

How long, to raise another personal example, can my Jewish children revel in driedles, latkes and the weird decoding exercise of learning Hebrew letters before it is associated in their minds with the Holocaust, or the long, sad story of anti-semitism?

I’m not arguing for concealing history’s painful truths, but do we rob our kids of the optimism required to fix history’s problems if they always see it as a tale of genocide and discrimination? Never has this question appeared more relevant than now when these issues are not only questions of history but of current events, when photographs of genocide and civil war are as common on the front page of the newspapers as they are in the text books.

My son didn’t have the names of the ships exactly right, but in celebrating such holidays we don’t have history exactly right either. While there may be no right answer to when we share these things with our kids it isn’t for a lack of opportunity. As I just screamed into my pool guy’s voicemail, “Thanksgiving is just around the corner!”