Yesterday morning I attended a Thanksgiving play in Holly’s third-grade classroom, a 13-scene musical drama that gives every child in the class the chance to play the part of a modern-day grandparent, a Pilgrim woman, a 17th-century Wampanoag tribesman, an ear of corn, or some other critical role in the Thanksgiving story.
It was a good production, just as it was when Tim was in the same play three years ago. From my perspective, it seems to reflect a vital if somewhat fabled narrative from U.S. history in simple but honest terms, and aspects that are sometimes overlooked, such as how miserable the Pilgrims were during their 66 days at sea and how difficult it was for them to survive their first New England winter, will likely stay in these kids’ memories as they learn more about U.S. history.
In a way, productions such as this one seem kind of anachronistic. By today’s standards of diversity, the traditional tale of Pilgrims learning from Native Americans, or “Indians,” how to plant crops, seems a bit quaint; it’s more typical at our school to see a depiction of a little-known Serbian folk tale than something as traditionally American as the Thanksgiving story.
But I’m glad this pageant hasn’t gone the way of Christmas, considered too Eurocentric and Christian to hold a place in the school setting. As Holly’s teacher pointed out to us, putting on a classroom play deploys all kinds of skills and lessons. On the most basic level, there was history in learning the story, art in designing the scenery, music in practicing the theme song. But there was also poise in learning to deliver lines effectively, group cooperation skills enhanced by working in sync with classmates, patience in waiting for other kids to deliver (or remember) their lines, even the skill of flexibility, embodied by two children who took on extra lines and jobs in yesterday’s performance to cover for an absent classmate.
Like most public schools, ours focuses a lot these days on benchmarks and data. Measuring the knowledge developed by spending three or four weeks preparing a play is harder than measuring math acquisition or reading comprehension, and yet to spend a half-hour in the classroom watching these twenty kids perform is to realize how much happens in their minds as they work on this kind of undertaking. Not least is the fact that their own teacher wrote the play and its theme song; for a child like mine who says – at least for now – that she doesn’t really like being on stage, it introduces the idea that there are other roles besides acting within the wider realm of drama – playwrights, lyricists, costume designers – and that creativity takes on myriad forms.
I appreciate the chance I had yesterday to attend the play. Not only is it always fun to see Holly and her classmates working on something together, but it’s good to be reminded even in the simplest terms possible of the events that brought about modern-day Thanksgiving. By this evening, I’ll be elbow-deep in stuffing and pumpkin pie filling, with still more to do tomorrow morning before dinner is ready to serve. It’s easy to get lost in the culinary details of Thanksgiving dinner. Moreover, on Sunday mornings throughout the year as I rush to get ready for church, I hardly ever stop to think about the fact that going to church is a choice I’m able to make. Thanks to my visit to the third grade, I’ll be thinking about those poor seasick Pilgrims and how profoundly important religious freedom was to them as I chop onions and set the table.