Friday, May 27, 2011

President John Adams on a stick

As Holly started the school year, I knew from past experience that once third grade was upon us, the Colonial puppet project couldn’t be far behind. Off it loomed in the distance as the school year wore on, somewhat like a dentist appointment. I knew it was approaching and I knew we had to make our way through it and I just wanted it to be behind us.

But it turned out I need not have worried. I say that not because we did such a bang-up job making a puppet modeled on one of the Founding Fathers or another historical figure of that era, but because Holly went into this project with the mindset that it was her task, not mine. She chose her character (John Adams), she found her research materials (illustrated picture books from the Famous People in History series at the library), she sketched out her puppet blueprint, and then she sat down and made the puppet. All she asked me to do was collect necessary supplies: popsicle stick, glue, black and brown construction paper, cotton (for a fluffy wig of hair).

And then she stuck googly eyes on John Adams. For reasons I can’t explain, any face looks funnier with googly eyes. In general, our second president has a rather grim mien, at least as represented by Holly; but the eyes make me giggle. But even funnier still was after she tried to glue the popsicle stick on President Adams’ back. It wasn’t sticking; I explained she’d have to apply pressure, so she pinned her puppet under my recipe box and left him there to dry. With his black cardboard shoes sticking out from under one end and his cottony head of hair at the other, he looked like the witch in the Wizard of Oz after the house lands on her.

Having constructed the puppet to her satisfaction – little yellow paper circles for his coat buttons, a wide rectangle colored in with pink crayon for his mouth – she began drafting the script for him to recite. “I’m John Adams. I went to Harvard, and I’m proud to be a lawyer!” she exclaimed. So far it was sounding more like my last high school reunion than a Founding Father. “I don’t like it that the king of England tells us what to do and makes us pay taxes!” she went on.

As she practiced, I paged through the newspaper. And there was a photo of President Obama and the First Lady at Buckingham Palace with the descendant of the very same king that my little historian was railing against three feet away from me. “Look at this!” I interrupted Holly. I pulled up the same photo on line so she could see it in color, and then showed her a related photo of the Obamas meeting with England’s newlywed prince and princess. “What do you think John Adams would make of these photos?”

Holly studied the screen, and I could see the proverbial wheels turning. Nearly 240 years ago, a man who would become president helped write the Declaration of Independence with the intent of cutting ties with English royalty, and as Holly’s class found out during their visit to the Freedom Trail earlier this month, men died in the fighting that preceded that outcome; it was a violent and far-reaching conflict. But here was another U.S. president all dressed up and smiling with the queen by his side. And he was visiting her at her home. In England, no less.

“So you see?” I said to Holly. “They eventually learned to get along after all.”
Even for Holly – or perhaps I should say even for me – this is too simplistic a message. She deals with conflict among groups and friends every day – on the bus, on the playground, even in the classroom – and she understands that political differences aren’t exactly like third grade cliques.

Moreover, it’s not like the U.S. and England only recently resolved their differences. Unlike Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland earlier this month, there’s nothing surprising about seeing an American president at Buckingham Palace.

But it makes me wonder what seemingly irresolvable political differences that exist now will be resolved with enough time – or with enough new conflicts to erase the old ones. Arguably, the U.S. and Britain have in recent decades been not so much friends as allies united against common enemies.

So it may be a stretch to try to incorporate this into Holly’s talk about the Founding Fathers. But as I looked at this week’s photos from London, I couldn’t help wondering what lesson there was to be learned from the duality playing out that moment in my kitchen between past and present. Maybe if nothing else, it was a reminder of how alliances and enmities are ever-fluctuating, and must always – whether they are as small as a playground snub or as large as world powers – be viewed with a sense of context.

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