For the second year in a row, administrators at my children’s’ school didn’t find Veterans Day compelling enough to interrupt their rigorous curriculum with letters of appreciation to veterans, read-aloud stories of military valor, or assemblies honoring those who risk their lives for us all. I understand things were especially tight for the fourth grade this year at Selby Grove Elementary in Pico Rivera, CA – what with the two weeks they spent on their “Dia De Los Muertos” project.
Huh? Dia de los what?
“Dia de los Muertos,” for the culturally insensitive among you, is a Mexican festival honoring dead ancestors. It might seem odd to many readers that an American public school would devote a chunk of their educational time to a foreign, quasi-religious observance over a unifying, secular, and American holiday like Veterans Day. You’re not alone. I know that it’s at least as strange to the parents of the students – many of whom happen to be veterans – who neither ask for nor expect their ancestors’ native holidays to get three minutes of class time.
Not that the high school where I work did any better on Veterans Day – not one decoration, one announcement, nothing.
Learning about different cultures doesn’t bother me; quite the contrary, in fact. Nor do I want “Battle of the Green Berets” to be the closing slow dance at the prom. It just seems like neglecting this holiday is such a waste of teaching opportunities. After all, where else will children learn about Audie Murphy, Sergeant York, or the many thousands of soldiers who quite literally made California public schools possible?
It certainly won’t be from their textbooks. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the PC-ness of modern textbooks. When I taught fourth grade, one of the stories in the Language Arts (English) textbook was about a young Hispanic girl who enrolls in a mostly white California school only to go home crying the same day because of incessant teasing. Once at home, her father offers this jewel of wisdom: “You have nothing to be ashamed of. You should be proud. You’re a descendant of the Mayans, the people who built the great pyramids and invented the ‘zero.'”
O.K., now switch “White” and “Hispanic” and substitute “Anglo-Saxons” for “Mayans,” the Panama Canal for “Pyramids,” and “modern physics” for “zero.” It’s not going to make the book.
In the same text, a man awakes from a treeless nightmare world of landfills and global warming (There’s still time, but we must act now!). It also had stories on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. History lessons included a story about a girl who made paper cranes in Hiroshima after suffering from radiation poisoning and one on Japanese detention camps.
My ESL (English as a Second Language) textbook from last year had a story about a turn-of-the-century prison in California where American officials held Chinese illegal immigrants. The prison is famous for its graffiti, written by the immigrants in their desperation. Think about this for one minute: An American ESL textbook telling recent arrivals to this country how bad the United States has been to immigrants and how defacing property is a noble form of protest. I can assure you the latter idea is one students have taken to heart at Huntington Park High School.
Wait! Let me open my current textbook, “Perspectives in Multicultural Literature.” The ninth grade edition has stories by or about: Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, the Kennedy assassination, and Japanese internment. It includes various immigrant stories like “American History,” which is about a girl who can’t cry for JFK because her school keeps Puerto Ricans out of honor classes, and “All-American Girl,” whose protagonist wanted:
“stockings, makeup, store-bought clothes”
“…practiced foreign faces, Anglo grins,
repressing a native Latin fluency
for the cooler mask of English ironies”
only to realize:
“My face wouldn’t obey- like a tide
it was pulled back by my lunatic heart
to its old habits of showing feelings.
Long after I’d lost my heavy accent,
my face showed I had come from somewhere else.
I couldn’t keep the southern continent
out of my northern vista of my eyes,
or cut my cara off to spite my face.
I couldn’t look like anybody else
but who I was: an all-American girl.”
On the positive side, the book’s two essays on global warming present opposing viewpoints.
The tenth grade book starts with two essays arguing opposite sides of “Good Samaritan” laws and is followed by the Good Samaritan parable from the Bible (One wonders how they managed to sneak a Bible story in there..)
Then we have an essay on that glorious episode in American history, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. This is followed by more MLK, as well as Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Cesar Chavez. Since this is a unit on speeches and argument, it includes a “pro-Vietnam” letter home from a soldier who sounds only slightly less sophisticated than Larry the Cable Guy. Moving on: Malcolm X, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Frederick Douglass, and this poem titled “Legal Alien”:
“American, but hyphenated,
viewed by Anglos as perhaps exotic,
perhaps inferior, definitely different,
viewed by Mexicans as alien…
…by masking the discomfort
of being pre-judged
Judging by the book, with all of the difficulties immigrants experience in the United States, it’s a miracle so many decide to stay.
And that’s just for now. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed a bill into law mandating fair representation of gay, lesbian, transsexual, and transgender people in California textbooks.
Now, my point isn’t to knock Martin Luther King, Jr., who has been the subject of some of my most emotional teaching moments, or Cesar Chavez who, by all accounts, was a decent man. Even Malcolm X had some good things to say.
I also don’t want to criticize my colleagues, most of whom are wonderful teachers, or give the impression that dissent isn’t tolerated. (Although I did receive stares from my colleagues when I inserted the Sermon on the Mount and speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan in the speech unit above.)
I’m just asking why we’d want to show children, many of whom are recent arrivals to our fair land, only the worst part of America? Why would we want them to think that America is predominantly a land filled with racism, prejudice, and unfairness? A nation where the only heroes are those that fight against “the Man.” Don’t they get enough of that from movies and their music? If American educators don’t advocate for our own country – at least some of the time – who will?
I’d like to implore parents not to take anything for granted. Chances are that if your child goes to public school, you’re going to have to teach him patriotic stuff yourself. Increasingly, public school seems to be aimed at instilling a sense of grievance.
Nelson Guirado blogs at Asymmetric.