#32 Celebrating Thanksgiving on the Navajo Reservation
This was originally published in The Franklin Journal in 2006 as I was in my first year of teaching after college
At 3:34pm on November 23rd, the doorbell in my teacherage rang. It was the sixth grade language arts teacher at my mid school, come to join in on our Thanksgiving gathering.
My two twenty-something roommates and I were hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves and fifteen guests in our tiny three bedroom government-subsidized apartment for teachers. We were celebrating the coming of the pilgrims on the Navajo reservation. We all realized the irony.
The sixth grade language arts teacher was the only Navajo at our gathering. While other guests brought vegetable trays or pumpkin pies, this woman walked in timidly with a casserole dish full of blue corn mush. She immediately sat on the couch, removed from the wine laden conversations of my father, roommates, a friend and her family.
I sat down next to her on our red velvet couch that was clearly the furniture of a recent college graduate and began talking about teaching.
She mentioned that her children had just finished reading a excerpt of Self Reliance. I gasped, remembering my eyes glazing over with Emerson in a dark carrel of my college library. How the heck were kids two years younger than mine comprehending this material?
“Did they get it?” I asked, baffled.
They had gotten it, she said. “Like this one boy,” she said, “realized that his grandparents everyday had to ask him to help them by doing his chores. He realized that by this age he should do them.” I was impressed. Governor Richardson would have been too, this was definitely demonstrating mastery of the text-to-self connection state mandated standard.
I sighed, and wonder if Governor Richardson would be as impressed with my classroom. I showed my kids the documentary Spellbound in the two days of class prior to Thanksgiving break, hoping they would find some opportunity for introspection and inspiration in a film that followed eight young teens across the country on the road to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.
In my fifth period class, I noticed that one of my students had folded the sheet of comprehension questions I had passed out into a quite impressive airplane and was playing string games. The Cat’s Cradle games young children, mostly girls, across America play were originally adapted from Navajo string games.
However, on the reservation, these games can only be played after the first snowfall. After that first flurry fell, I had my biggest and burliest football players wandering around school halls playing the same games my friends and I had played in our pigtail days.
I could have chided my student and made him unfold his question, but instead I laughed and walked over to have him pass the string to me in the intricate method I had perfected on the Cape Cod Hill School playground.
“Never knew your traditions would have made it all the way to Maine, huh?” I asked, speaking over the movie and glancing pointedly down at his question sheet. He laughed and unfolded his sheet while I spent the rest of the hour sitting next to my students playing with the yarn that one of their mothers had spun.
When my father asked me what I was thankful for during our Thanksgiving dinner, as he and several other adults thirty years older than me were enjoying great food and company in my home, I told him that I was thankful for what I was learning from the people surrounding me.
I had learned that the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had was only complete with blue corn mush and that it took an interest in and knowledge of a piece of string to gain a student’s respect. I said I hoped my kids were learning at least half as much from me and took a sip of French Wine from my Wal-Mart brand plastic cup while the sixth grade teacher smiled at me.
“You’ll learn to tell if they’re learning,” she said, “Happy Thanksgiving!” she laughed, and held up her glass of water as the giant Western sun once again set on the shiny aluminum roofs of Crownpoint.