Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Native American Day and why I don't homeschool

Thursday is "Native American Day" in the Princess's kindergarten class.  Parents were asked to volunteer.  Every time parents are asked to volunteer, my daughter expects me to be there.  And every time, I have to explain to her that Mommy has to go to work, and some other parents don't have to go work in an office, because their job is to stay home with their kids, and those are the parents whose job it is to come volunteer at school.  And she's usually ok with that.  But she needs it explained every. Single. Time.  Yes, eventually I will have to request an early lunch or a vacation day and go take part in one of these kindergarten activities.  But in general?  No, I will not be the room mother, the crossing guard, the Girl Scout leader, or the PTA President.

And this Thursday, I will not be helping to facilitate Native American Day, whatever Native American Day might entail.

But.  Because I'm an involved and engaged mother who cares what her child is learning in school, I asked the Princess this morning in the car: "What is a Native American?"

She said, "I don't know. OH! Are they Indians?"

"Well.  Yes, they are American Indians."  (I know scenes from Peter Pan are running through her head.  You know the one.  "Squaw get-um firewood!"  I knew that movie was a mistake, cringed every time I heard that horribly, horribly catchy song.  But I let her watch it anyway, didn't I?  Grrrr.  Disney!)

"What do you know about them?" I ask.

"Um. I forget that one guy's name..."

"Christopher Columbus?" I say, because in addition to being involved and engaged (and culturally sensitive), I am psychic.

"Yeah! Was he a Native American?"

"  He was not.  He...met the Native Americans when he came here from Europe.  Across the ocean."

"What IS a Native American then?"

"Well.  Native Americans were the first people to live in America."

"Are WE Native Americans?"


"Then who is?"

OK.  You'll be relieved to know that at this point, before I could do anymore damage, we arrived at school.  I said, "Well, I guess that's what you'll learn in school this week!" as I kissed her goodbye and sped off towards my grownup job, leaving her in the hands of the kindergarten teacher and her arsenal of workbooks and curriculum and training.

I used to think I wanted to homeschool my children.  You know, violence and bad influences, not to mention the gross failure of the public school system in America.  I had rosy visions of nature walks and family poetry slams and collecting bugs in jars and instilling in my bright-eyed children a genuine, independent love of learning that would guide them through life, allowing them to educate themselves.  I still believe homeschooling is a viable and wonderful option for many, many families, and part of me sincerely wishes I was in a position to do it myself.

Some days more than others.

Then there are moments like this, where I'm faced with what seems like the most simple little history lesson ever.  The first Thanksgiving!  Christopher Columbus!  Pilgrims!  The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria!  These are all magical phrases in my mind.  Costumes and crafts, buckle shoes and feathered headdresses.  Multicolored corn.  Handprint turkeys!  Obviously I don't remember too many actual facts about this stuff, OK?  And facts are apparently what my five-year-old is interested in.  Go figure.

No, we're not Native Americans.  Who is?  Well, honey, I'm not sure you know any.

No, I know you have Indian friends in your class...Native Americans are not really Indians.  Indians are from India...Christopher Columbus just thought Native Americans were Indians and people have called them that ever since.

How could Christopher Columbus have discovered America if there were already all these people living in it?  Well.  Um...he didn't, really.  He was just the first European...No, we're not European.  We're American.  No, not Native American.  Well, our ancestors were European and they came over here after Christopher Columbus.  Ancestors?  It means...our grandparents' grandparents' grandparents.  People who lived here a long long time ago, and they had kids and they had kids and they had kids and then we were born, you still listening?

I realize I'm trying really hard not to let the word "white" into this conversation, and I'm not entirely sure why.  I mean, we are white.  She knows we're white.  We live in California; it's diverse.  So she has plenty of friends who are not white and this is not a revelation to her, that people are different colors.  But somehow in this context it seems so wrong, to delineate "Native American" and "white," "them" and "us."  "No, honey, THEY were already here, but WE weren't here yet, so it wasn't discovered until WE got here. And by WE I don't mean WE, I just mean people who lived a long, long time ago and happened to have roughly the same skin color as us."  What?

Maybe I should go to Native American Day.


  1. If you were in a position to be able to homeschool, you would purchase books/curriculum with all the answers in them. Then you would read the books the day before you taught her what you read, and she would think that you actually knew stuff. At least that's how I do it.

  2. Yeah, what your mom said. Also, this is funny. Thirdly, I'm reminded of yet another thing on my "Be a Better Parent To Do List": read this article: and figure out what I'm supposed to be saying about race.

  3. Thanks for the article, Danae! We've always told the Princess that God makes people with all different skin colors, just like we have different eye colors and hair colors. But as she gets older it does become important to move from discussing "color" to discussing "race" and all the social and historical implications of race. I guess that's why the Native American discussion brought me up short, because it wasn't a question specifically of "why is his skin darker than mine." It was a question about two different races of people and how they came together and what happened when they did, and it's not always a pretty story, and it's hard to know what a 5-year-old should know about that.


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