November 23, 2005

Gee, Thanks.

I thought, apropos of the holiday, I would share with you one of my memories from a Thanksgiving of my youth. Third grade, to be exact. We were doing the standard play about the “first Thanksgiving”, with the Pilgrims and the Indians (which we all know are Native Americans now, but I don’t think we were taught that in my class). I also don’t think it paralleled the first Thanksgiving very truthfully, but there were some actual historical figures, like William Bradford, so we took it as truth. We were nine years old, so we had no clue—we just knew it meant a whole day of putting on funny clothes and kicking each other with buckle-y shoes instead of practicing our cursive, which we were totally down with. We had some tryouts for the main roles, because a lot of the kids were terrified to speak in public. Luckily, some were also attention whores. I fell somewhere in between; I was a shy kid, but I secretly wanted the spotlight. I spoke clearly, and I had seen enough movies to know a thing or two about acting. After about thirty seconds of reading the play, I knew which part I wanted.

I wanted to play Squanto.

Squanto, the “Indian” guide who befriends the shivering settlers of the Mayflower and welcomes them to the New World; who teaches them how to survive the New England winter by revealing ancient Native American secrets, namely weaving and farming. Squanto was intelligent, and I (natch) wanted to play the smart person. I told my teacher that I wanted to read the part. She gave me a tired look, like I was deliberately trying to give her trouble.

“You can’t be Squanto,” she said “Squanto’s a boy.”

I was confused. I guess I hadn’t noticed that he was a boy; the character is just called ‘Squanto’, and is blissfully unburdened by pronouns. I asked her if she was sure, since the script (for lack of a better term for some Xeroxed-play sheets stapled in the corner) never refers to Squanto as a “he”. She got all up on her Huffy bike, and assured me that, yes, she was sure, so I should pick one of the girl parts.

“The girls don’t say much,” I replied. This was true. They mainly had lines like “We shall never survive this winter!” and “Surely God will reward our loyalty with his heavenly bounty!” I’m so not making this up.

So, I pushed the subject again: My hair was very short when I was a kid; I was actually mistaken for a boy a lot. I told my teacher I would wear pants, or a hat, or whatever she wanted. I wasn’t trying to annoy anyone, I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t play the part I wanted—it’s not like anyone else expressed any interest in it. I didn’t know about sexism, or prejudice, so I wasn’t even angry yet because I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it. She finally got fed up with me following her around and asked if anyone else wanted to play Squanto. Nobody did.

“David, you don’t want to be Squanto?”
“Um, not really. I wanna be the mayor.”

“Oh. Sean?”
“I’m the narrator.”

I stared to get annoyed here.

“Jacob—didn’t you say you wanted a big part?”

Jacob. Poor Jacob.

“Um… I guess…”

“Well, Squanto is a big part. He’s a very important person.” She hit the ‘he’ just enough to make me die a little inside. Did I mention I was nine? OK. She’s forty, so you know.

“Uh, ok. Does she want it, though?” Jacob asked about me. I will always love Jacob just a little bit, for being just as innocent as I was, and backing me up on it.

“No, she’s going to play one of the settlers. You can be Squanto.”

“Oh. OK, then.”

I wasn’t going to cry. I wouldn’t give her saggy ass the satisfaction.

“But… should we read, first? Like, to see if I know the words?” Jacob. My hero.

She’s pissed now. She thinks, somehow, we’re in this together; we’ve conspired to ruin her day. “Fine,” she spits, and we read our parts. It’s not much of a tryout, but I do my best, and I think I did better than Jacob, because yes, I did know more words. The read-through takes all of five minutes.

“Well, you both did really well,” she condescends (I knew about condescension at nine; most children do). “I’ll tell you what…”

Oh, man. Are we going to have to split the part? I really hate doing that.

“Pick a number.”

Um, what? Pick a number? Are you kidding me?

“Three,” Jacob says.

I think a minute. “Seven.”

“The number was two. Jacob is Squanto.” She walked to her desk just a little too jauntily for one who just crushed the heart of a child. Jacob looked at me apologetically, like I was going to hit him. I just shrugged it off, went back to my desk, and stewed.

Why is this pertinent? Two reasons:

Irony: At nine years old, I learned more about the settlers’ treatment of Native Americans not through reading this play, but by trying out for the play.

Trust: I realized, just this year, that she never wrote the number down.

Everyone have a Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t lie to children. It’s wrong.

1 comment:

cd said...

That's a great story to really get me into the Thanksgiving mood! I feel your pain regarding manipulative teachers. I'm imagining an alternate universe where you were allowed to play Squanto and became a rich hollywood actress. I think that teacher owes you about $600,000 annually in lost income.