THANKSGIVING 101 by Steve Siddle

November 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

11.23.11

Thanksgiving 101

by Steve Siddle

How do you teach Thanksgiving? A few years ago I was teaching English as a second language at a refugee center in Worcester, Ma. My students ranged in age from 19 to 90, and they all had been in America less than a month. Some sought asylum, some came with papers that granted them Refugee Status, some had no papers, most were unsure of the immigration process. They all wanted to be American with a pure longing that moved me deeply.

My students  included; an elderly Paratrooper from Belarus, a single mother from Columbia, a displaced engineer from Afghanistan, a pair of 25-year-old twins from Liberia who had been child soldiers, a young Somali woman who had lived her entire life in refugee camps, and a brilliant Chinese woman who read every book I gave her.

Depending on who you asked, I was either a great teacher or a horrible one. I didn’t use any textbook; I followed no curriculum and completely ignored the grading system. Instead I adhered to a more Socratic method. I asked questions of my students that I thought they might be asked in their new American lives.  (“What is your address? Do you have a telephone number I can reach you at? Do you take any medications? What do you do for a living? Why are you here?”) And they asked me the questions they were afraid to ask anyone else. (“Where do I buy meat? How do I get a bus pass? Should I be afraid of the police? What do I do when it snows?”)

I used newspapers and advertisements for literature and I gave them each a dictionary. We went on field trips to the Greendale Mall, to Santiago’s Market, and to the DMV. I loved to turn off the lights in the classroom and play Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Duke Ellington’s “The Beautiful American.” I encouraged them to watch television with the sound off. “You can learn more from watching Americans than listening to them,” I would tell my students.

I never asked about their past. I taught them that, in America, it doesn’t matter where you came from, or how you got here, all that matters now is what you what to do with your freedom.  I wrote on the chalkboard in large graffiti style letters. “RE-CREATE YOURSELF!” I quoted Whitman and Malcolm X and told them to distrust anyone wearing an American Flag button.

I tried to make our time together comfortable and fun and I encouraged them to ask me questions with honestly and with courage. I tried to answer in the same manner. When Thanksgiving came, I was asked a lot of question about the Holiday. “Why do we eat Turkey? What is football? Where have all of the Indians gone? What is Black Friday, and should I be afraid of the day?”

The hardest question they asked me was “What does Thanksgiving mean to you?” I could have told them about The American Indian Movement’s observance of Thanksgiving as a “National Day of Mourning”, I could have shown “Charlie Brown’s the Great Pumpkin” or quoted “the Godfather”. I could have remembered my childhood traditions or told them about how my friends and I often get drunk the night before Thanksgiving. I could have talked about football.

At last I decided there were no adequate English words to describe how I feel about this American holiday. Instead I told them to go home and make the best food they could with what they had. When the day came, we all gathered together in the classroom and pushed aside the desks and chairs and made a table of the chalkboard. Boris brought home-made cheese, Aasiya brought porridge, the twins brought Ox tail, Daoud brought bread, and Xui Li brought soup.

Truth be told, it was not the most delicious Thanksgiving meal I ever had, but I’m proud to report that there were no leftovers. After the meal, when we were all full and happy and getting sleepy I read to them a poem I had recently found. I’ve read that poem every Thanksgiving since and it means more to me each year.

I hope that wherever you are tomorrow, whoever you are with and whatever you have eaten, you might take a moment and think about these words. I don’t often give assignments, but I believe that it is important for all of us to take a moment to read unique voices. It is a difficult, mysterious poem and I won’t claim to know exactly what it means, but I believe it captures something quintessentially American. I hope it inspires or challenges or confirms something we all feel. After reading this poem, you can go back to watching the Godfather or Football or napping in front of the fireplace and feel proud and thankful to be here.

Happy Thanksgiving, Steve

The Gift Outright

by Robert Frost

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

before we were her people. She was ours

inMassachusetts, inVirginia,

but we wereEngland’s, still colonials

possessing what we were still possessed  by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

until we found out it was ourselves

We were with holding from our land of living,

and forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(the deed of gift was many deeds of war)

to the land vaguely realizing westward,

but still unstirred, artless, un enhanced,

such as she was, such as she would become.

Read A THANKSGIVING PRAYER by Steve Siddle, November 2010

Read more by Steve Siddle

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§ 2 Responses to THANKSGIVING 101 by Steve Siddle

  • The Thanksgiving meal, your inspirational message and Robert Frost’s will probably stay with them longer than anything else they encounter. May all of their Thanksgivings – and yours – be blessed.

  • bu assal abu assal says:

    Yeah Steve,

    It is such a coincidence that we had been working together at the same non-profit center and that I experienced my first ever Thanksgiving meal at your parents’ home. It had been fantastic seeing all the white covering the streets, trees and roofs while we drove in your car, my first snow storm in the country.
    I am one of those “new arrivals” of that year who had dreamed of “becoming American” myself. Please extend my regards to your parents, brother and sister.
    Excellent writing as usual! Yeah Steve!

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