Tuesday, June 14, 2011

All Indians Weren't Bad People

I had the pleasure of being on Neil Hally's Total Education blogtalk a few weeks ago with Vicki Cobb. The first question Neil asked me was if I'd always been interested in history, to which I had to say no. Sadly, like a lot of kids (most?) I wasn't at all intrigued by any of the history taught through 6th grade. It all seemed like a dry procession of names and dates and facts heaped upon facts. This all changed in 7th grade.*
On the very first day of school that year we were introduced to a new teacher, a man. I attended a parochial school and Mr. Polino was the first male teacher ever hired. He was short and stocky and tough looking, and he began class that day by standing at the front, armed folded across his chest, staring hard at us. He never said a word but he definitely did not looked pleased. Gradually, as more and more kids stopped chattering to pay attention, the room quieted. I thought, "uh, oh, this isn't going to be good" and tied to disappear behind the kid in front of me. At this point Mr. Polino said in a strong voice, "All Indians weren't bad people!"*
By Indians he meant Native-Americans and the initial reaction to his simple statement ranged from surprised laughter to astonished gasps to scatterings of "what's he talking about?" Mr. P. then went on to tell us that we'd all been brainwashed into believing the worst about Native-Americans by really bad TV shows and movies. This produced a gentle murmuring of protest from the class; Mr. P. responded by asking us to be honest: "When you think about Indians what are the images that come to mind immediately." Several hands shot into the air and Mr. P. called on one after the other for answers, all of which turned out to be negative stereotypes based on -- guess what -- bad TV shows and movies.*
I realized that Mr. P. had trapped us, but he wasn't gloating about out manueuvering us or even lecturing us on wasting our time on trashy programs. He didn't even warn us that we should do better research before forming opinions. In fact, he was actually smiling by this time and seemed almost friendly as he began talking about the Lenni Lanape people and their accomplishments. And he did this for well over an hour. Telling us about their lifestyle, what local rivers and roads bore names using their language, how they had tried to maintain their lands through various treaties only to be betrayed by white settlers. It wasn't just the details he was revealing that grabbed my attention; Mr. P. was clearly animated and passionate about the subject and you could feel that excitement in his every word, every gesture. I sat up pretty tall in my seat so I could see and hear Mr. P. clearly. Afterward, I remember thinking that a whole new world had opened before me, a world where the past held secrets that I could uncover if I just did a little bit of legwork.*
I think about Mr. Polino every time I start a new project. Not that I think of myself as an accomplished teacher who might inspire young readers to a life of history. I have too much respect for the heavy lifting teachers have to do to engage and inform kids. But I do tell myself to put aside the cares of the day, to focus my thoughts and energy so I can bring as much passion and excitement to whatever subject I might be writing about. Hopefully, if I can maintain that focus from start to finish, one of my books might aid and abet a teacher in opening new worlds to one or more of their students.*

1 comment:

Steve Sheinkin said...

I can really relate, though I didn't meet my Mr. Polino until 11th grade US history. Since day 1 with Mr. Collins, I've been hooked. It's great to think I can do a little something to help teachers prove to kids that history is actually cool.