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November 19, 2018

We are NOT All Pilgrims

We are Not All Pilgrims

“…she discovers that all people in America are really ancestors of pilgrims who have traveled from other lands to make a new home.”

My body had a visceral reaction from the inside out when I read these words on the purple page homework assignment titled, “Molly’s Pilgrim Heritage Project”, in my daughter’s take home folder. As an eight year old second grader, she knows some of the family heritage, but not all. Like so many families, our family has broken branches in our tree, which include: early deaths, adoption, divorce and a string of other dead-ends and roadblocks.

My biological father’s mother was part Native American. Which part and which tribe, I don’t know. She died in 1965, before I was alive. But I believe we share a genetic cancer gene, among many other traits. I wonder often what she was like as a child, and if we laugh or smile the same, or if music and poetry lived in her bones the way it does in mine.

When I read the words “we are all pilgrims”, I felt (and still feel) betrayed — that these words are a robbery of our ancestors right of legacy. I may not know her voice, but I know she was of this earth, right here, and not from a voyage. She did not conquer, and her ancestors did not force a pilgrimage on the people of the land.

Is “Pilgrim” an honor? Or a right? Or a connection with our ancestors? Who enacted this material into the law of elementary school?

This teaching feels like bullshit. I’m honestly flabbergasted that any teacher would even type and print this material. We live in a community of Native American tribes and on shared land. This is appalling.

For my daughter, I towed this line lightly. As a single-mom making countless solo decisions, I want her to feel proud and accomplished –to share a part of our family without feeling ashamed or embarrassed in that we have less “heritage tradition” as others in her class.

For this particular heritage project, my daughter chose to speak about another hero in our family. My mother’s mother, a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivor. She was liberated in 1945, after time in Auschwitz and Allendorf, and was one of a hundred chosen for a US scholarship to university. I grew up extremely close with her. We went to plays together, shopped for new school clothes, and frequented her favorite book store on Mercer Way.

Watching my daughter practice pronouncing words in Hungarian like, Örökség (heritage) and Barátom (friend), was pure reincarnation. As if the pair of great-grandmothers, born of opposite sides of earth, had collaborated to bestow wisdom and wit into grace, and into my child’s voice in that moment.

The reality is that we are NOT all Pilgrims.

My hope is that the “All pilgrims” curriculum is modified and/or abolished. Some fled, and some were here originally –we are all humans, with history. All of our stories and family forests are unique. Some of us are gifted with the knowledge of those stories and some of us are left in wonder and imagination.  

Encouraging our children to embrace heritage is important and beautiful, but making it a Thanksgiving required assignment?! Nope. We can do better. We should do better. My daughter shouldn’t have to close the book on one side of our history, just to fit into the box of the “Pilgrim assignment”.

Sharing heritage should be a choice, not a class requirement.       

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