Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, comes from a story we all know by heart. Or do we? Howard Zinn, the iconic American historian, playwright, social activist, and Boston University political science professor wrote, by my estimation, one of the most impactful history books of the twentieth century: A People’s History of the United States. Just referring to the book may make some readers cringe at the thought of a Superintendent highlighting the work of a sometimes self-described anarchist and socialist. I assure you that I am neither (not that either are bad); moreover, I assure you that we all have something to learn from Zinn’s body of work and the work of many historians encouraging us to consider, and at times confront, the role bias plays in our understanding and retelling of history.
The celebration of Thanksgiving is a time each year when I am reminded of the biased lens through which I understand history. As an educator, it’s not enough for me simply to examine my own relationship to history; I am forced to also contemplate how historical topics are represented, retold, and reflected upon in our classrooms. Why? Because educators have a responsibility to teach students how to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information, even - and especially - the historical stories and perspectives they are told.
The limited perspective and inaccuracies of the “First Thanksgiving” extend to my experience in elementary school when we were encouraged to dress up during Thanksgiving season. The class was divided in half with half of the boys and girls dressing in what we assume to be “pilgrims” outfits and the other half of the class in face paint, moccasins, and feathers on the head. The truth is that the most widely recognized paintings of the “First Thanksgiving” are not historically accurate in the dress of either the colonists or the native peoples. The 1899 oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The First Thanksgiving 1621” depicts both the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in clothing that is historically inaccurate.(1) If this is the case, what is our responsibility as educators to debunk misrepresentations of historical truth?
What I learned about Thanksgiving when I was in school was only one sanitized part of a story. Sure, after surviving a difficult first year in Plymouth and taking in an abundant first harvest, a group of colonists did share food with a group of local native peoples known as the Wampanoag. Their leader, King Massasoit, and 90 of his men came bearing their own bounty (of dear) and shared a meal with the colonists in celebration of the harvest (which, by the way, was successful due to the native peoples’ agricultural mentoring of the colonists).(1) This event, not referred to by them as “Thanksgiving,” was a one-time experience. Shortly after the harvest celebration, colonists throughout and beyond the region continued mass slaughter of native peoples as the European settlers overtook more and more land.
Beyond the first harvest celebration, as a holiday Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had left to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut. The fighting led to the enslavement and massacre of over 700 men, women, and children from the New England-based tribe, a bloody precursor to what would be centuries of strife for native peoples in North America.(2)
Thanksgiving’s journey from its colonial origins in the mid seventeenth century to a national holiday in the United States of today took many turns. Reasons for recognizing the holiday ranged from celebration of battle victory to boosting the young nation’s economy. Following George Washington’s “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” after the American Revolution, it was up to each president to declare a national day of thanksgiving - or not - and so it was an on-again, off-again holiday. Abraham Lincoln thanked the Union Army and God for a pivotal victory at Gettysberg and on October 3, 1863 announced the official Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated November 26, 1863. The fourth Thursday of November remained the national day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday to give Christmas shoppers a few extra days. In 1941, Congress reinstated the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving holiday, and there it remains today.(3)
So what? The point of my musing is not just to teach a lesson on Thanksgiving, but to use this holiday season as a reminder of the importance of considering multiple points of view and confronting bias in the telling of history. If our students are to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information--a necessary life and career skill made even more important in today’s political environment--we must not shy away from encouraging students to explore truth even if that truth is uncomfortable or shameful. Children have broad capacity to think critically, often much more capacity than we give them credit for. In my mind, educators and parents have a shared responsibility to gradually release our children to greater and greater access to information in conjunction with powerful and thought-provoking questions that require children to examine, reflect, challenge, and draw conclusions.
Most certainly, adults must respect intellectual and emotional readiness when approaching truth and bias. However, telling skewed versions of history out of fear that children can’t handle the truth creates more insidious problems later on. In my opinion, it is better to not say anything than to tell an inaccurate or misleading version of the truth simply because the truth of history is too hard to bear. Further, telling history from only one point of view similarly debilitates a child’s developmental ability to draw their own conclusions.
As a Superintendent, I hope that teachers in the district I serve feel empowered to develop the critical thinking skills of our budding historians, by including the following in their practice:
For families and teachers who are interested in learning more about bias and its influence on how history is told, there are excellent resources out there, and my district’s middle school library’s web page is a good place to start. Howard Zinn, in fact, published a version of his bestseller for younger readers entitled, A Young People’s History of the United States.
Before anyone accuses me of being the anti-Thanksgiving Superintendent, I also want to suggest that new meaning can be created out of darker parts of our history. Children are often more skilled than adults at finding opportunities for forgiveness and healing and creating a new reality. They are uniquely able to both acknowledge the painful parts of history and positively redefine cultural symbols. For me, Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity for us to “celebrate the harvest” in our own lives. It’s a time to consider who in our lives has become “the other” and to commit to reaching out beyond our comfort zone to build bridges toward seeing them as “us.” It’s a season of gratitude and humility. It is most certainly a time to fellowship with those we love. And ultimately, it is through recognizing its dark origins that the blessings we celebrate during Thanksgiving today are most meaningfully appreciated.
Sources and further reading on the origins of Thanksgiving:
On October 11, 2017, an article highlighting the increase in the number of teenagers suffering from severe anxiety appeared in the NY Times Magazine. Since it was published and shared throughout social media platforms, several parents and colleagues have forwarded it along. As a superintendent and someone known in the community as an advocate for the needs of youth and parent education, I often receive “Did you see this?” inquiries. I had seen this particular article almost as soon as it was published.
The topic--severe anxiety in teens--is not unfamiliar to me. As a middle and high school teacher and administrator, I have worked with scores of young people impacted by anxiety, from common teenage angst all the way to life-altering, debilitating anxiety. I also have a personal connection to anxiety; as a teenager, I was diagnosed with anxiety myself, having experienced some challenging trauma as a middle school student. I share this not to make the issue about me. Rather, I share it to convey the empathy with which I come to this issue.
The NY Times piece highlights a reality that our educators experience daily. Our young people are incredibly susceptible to the lies anxiety tells, the insecurity it breeds, and the fears it attempts to hardwire into our children. As an educator, I am the first to admit that schools, in general, are often not well equipped to respond to the needs of children struggling with anxiety. As a leader of a gifted team of teachers and administrators, I regularly witness our educational professionals asking important questions about what more we can do to accommodate the needs of children battling anxiety, without enabling negative habits that only serve to exacerbate the problem. The challenge is not easy. Schools cannot do it alone.
While there are no easy answers, I cherish the opportunity to share what I know to be true about anxiety and young people with our parents, educators, and communities as we come together to support our children and their families who are struggling with anxiety.
Anxiety in youth is not new. My own experience is one small illustration of a truth that is sometimes missed in the urgency of the current debate around anxious youth. Youth have always been more susceptible to anxiety; it’s a reality of the human experience. However, youth today are under increasing pressure, including changes in environment and culture, that exacerbate the impacts of an already anxious time of life.
Anxiety is an equal-opportunity illness. Some may think that anxiety is more prevalent in certain communities: among the poor, among children exposed to violence, or among residents living in urban centers, as examples. The reality is that anxiety affects children and teens across all demographic subgroups. No one is immune. Even those youth that society perceives as “having it all” experience concerning rates of anxiety and stress. As the NY Times piece highlighted, “privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America.” We must let go of any assumptions we might hold regarding who does or doesn’t or who should or shouldn’t suffer from anxiety.
Social Media didn’t create youth anxiety, but it greatly exacerbates it. While not new, anxiety among our youth is enabled, elevated, and made more complicated by social media, which has dramatically shifted the norms around privacy, introspection, and self identification. The ‘normal’ human, angsty, emotional, insecure experience of being a teenager is played out in real-time for all to see--and to judge, “like” or dislike, criticize, make fun of, and tear apart. In an effort to save face and create the “self” most likely to receive approval from peers and society, many of our children are engaged in a game of self preservation where there are no winners. Positive uses aside, social media sites that have become ubiquitous such as Instagram and Snapchat, as well as more insidious sites like askfm, kik, and whisper, are hotbeds of bullying, narcissism, and harassment where the natural insecurities of teens are often exposed and exploited. A pragmatist, I don’t promote a luddite response to social media; however, every parent should be wary of when to allow non-educational social media into their child’s life and closely monitor social media use.
Schools must be part of the solution.
Schools cannot focus solely on teaching academics. Today’s youth and their parents need the engagement and commitment of school leaders, teachers, and support staff in the battle against anxiety. Educators cannot simply cover their eyes and close their ears to the role schools plays in increasing anxiety and the role educators play in addressing the impacts of anxiety. It’s not enough to say, “When I was in school, we had homework and stress and we just dealt with it.” A healthy dose of empathy among educators is needed to effectively support student social-emotional needs. In the district I serve, Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley, where anxiety and stress among teens is an ever-increasing challenge, our staff are being trained on Restorative Practices in the classroom as one way of providing our youth with tools around battling stress and anxiety.
Children need sanctuaries.
After recognizing that anxiety was impacting my well-being in high school, I was fortunate to have two adults in my high school who created a sanctuary for me--a place without judgement, a place to retreat and find quiet or a listening ear. Not every child who suffers from anxiety is so fortunate. Our homes, our schools, and our communities need to prioritize the informal and formal places of refuge for our youth suffering from anxiety and stress. A great place to start is, once again, a place of empathy. Begin by asking yourself, “If I were a young person in my home/school/community suffering from persistent stress and anxiety, where could I turn? Who would help me? Where could I find quiet, peace and/or a listening, non-judgemental ear?” If you can’t answer that question with at least three different clear options, maybe it’s time to take action to create such a sanctuary.
Don’t dismiss it, but also don’t give anxiety the power it seeks. Help is out there.
Anxiety thrives on silence. Persistent anxiety is about fear and control. Children suffering from anxiety need to know the signs and need to be encouraged to seek help. It is precisely in the taking control back and AWAY from anxiety that anxiety loses its power. When youth can claim control back, they can begin to conquer it. When the caring adults in the lives of our youth empower and support those struggling with anxiety to take control, we offer hope. Don’t dismiss the signs and don’t dismiss those youth who are struggling by minimizing their experience. However, DO empower them to name it, face it, fight it, and get to the other side of anxiety victorious and with the necessary coping skills for future success when anxiety again rears its ugly head as it almost always does.
In the Menlo Park area, where I am Superintendent, we are fortunate to be served by SafeSpace, a recently opened center for youth to find support for anxiety and other mental health issues. Other places to look for resources that help families tackle anxiety include:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Freedom from Fear
National Institute of Mental Health
I feel grateful to lead a district that is partnering with parents and empowering students. This month, in my own district, we are featuring a speaker on this topic as part of our parent education Speaker Series. Dr. Jacob Towery, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist and Adjunct Clinical Faculty at Stanford University, and author of The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy, will speak from the heart to parents about what they can do to help their children when signs of anxiety and depression arise. You may have noticed changes in your own child that are concerning, and even if you haven’t, the more adults in our community that are aware of the signs of anxiety and depression and of ways to offer help to kids struggling with them, the more places of sanctuary and support there will be for all our children. Dr. Towery notices in his own practice the increasing number of youth seeking help for anxiety, and brings his compassion and expertise to the Speaker Series on Wednesday, November 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School. All are welcome to attend; please find details here. You may be the safe adult to whom another parent’s child feels comfortable reaching out; let’s all be prepared to give youth the support they need.
It really does take a village to raise a child. In today’s age, those words have never been more true.
It’s not hard for me to imagine what it feels like for parents to drop their children off at the doorsteps of our schools each day because it is a ritual I experience with my own three kids. As I hold my breath for a split second in that cosmic moment of ‘letting go’ each morning, my false sense of security when they are in close proximity to me gives way to the realization that once again they will be in control of their own decisions, actions, and reactions. All my insecurities as a parent are wrapped up in that moment of release, when I kick my kids out of the nest and await their flying “home” at the end of the day. This daily act of radical trust gives me pause to reflect on what I hope and expect for them. I kiss my kids goodbye and leave them three messages:
“Be good. Be kind. Learn lots.”
But what do I hope they hear when I say those six words each day?
I want them to value and appreciate the climate, culture, and routines of the space they inhabit during the day. I hope they hear that on some level I expect them to be obedient because, while not my primary value, I do want my children to follow the rules out of respect and generosity to those around them. Beyond doing what is expected of them, I hope, too, that they try their best at whatever they are doing, learning, or trying. I don’t need them to be the best; I just want them to try their hardest. When I say, “Be good,” I want them to know that I subscribe to the growth mindset philosophy, rather than the fixed, in that I believe “good” and “smart” are things you become, not things you are.
Probably the most important character trait I want to instill in my children is kindness. When I say, “Be kind,” I hope my children hear that I want them to approach the kids and adults with whom they interact with the same compassion, grace, and understanding that they would want for themselves. It’s the golden rule, right? Do unto others as you would want done unto you. I want them to know that more than getting good grades and making the right choices, how my children treat people is most important to me. And, like any parent desires, I hope that kindness is returned to them. What goes around comes around.
School exists to teach our children the lessons they need to know to be successful in life and effective members of our democratic society. And so, when I send my children off with the final refrain, “Learn lots,” I hope they hear loud and clear that I do not want them to experience school as simply an exercise in obedience. I want them to choose to be challenged. I want them to seek information that they do not know. I want them to apply the information they acquire in meaningful ways. I want them to explore their world. I want them to ask hard questions and not quit until they find the answers.
The community’s kids are also my kids. Parents bring children to our doorsteps every day filled with their own hopes and expectations and nervous moments of radical trust. Parents trust teachers to have patience and skill. They trust friends to show kindness and acceptance. They trust their kids to make good decisions and come home knowing more than when they left. They trust themselves to have prepared and loved their kids so they are ready to be sent into the world. And our highest calling and greatest joy as educators is to pick up where parents let go so that all our kids feel good and kind and ready to learn lots.
As we dig into the school year, what are your bottom lines? Have you considered your family’s non-negotiables? I think it is helpful for our kids to know what we expect and hope for as we release them each day onto the doorsteps of our schools. And, if your children are anything like mine, they will not always deliver…but there’s always tomorrow.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.