How Do We Learn Understanding: Read

Monument of Mary Jemison @ St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church

I asked my students to write speeches to become the President of our Fascist country.  One of my students stood up at the front of the classroom and discussed the problems with white people.  There was anger in her tone, she was blushing, but with heat, not bloom.   She listed Ms. M specifically as “that kind.”

Now this was the assignment I had asked my students to do on the day that they became Fascist.  They needed to blame someone.  We were outlining the steps it took for Germany to become Nazi using our country, Manneslovokia.  I pinned my classroom against the other 9th grade classes and for four days we were a different type of German government leading to Naziism.  This sounds bad, but I needed my students to desperately understand why people put up with this behavior, what mob mentality is, and how ruling by fear dictates the action of millions of people.  It’s a complicated history and a complicated assignment for understanding, comprehension, and empathy.

Mary Jemison Grave Site / NY

My student who hunched over at the front of my classroom, calling me out as a white woman who pushed her views on those around her was speaking from the truth and from the lies.  I teach in a county full of displaced First Nation people.  I call them displaced because the Native American people of this region have not been given full First Nation rights like other tribes.  They are a mixed blend of the Six Nations and therefore can’t be determined to be “full blood.”  It’s another complicated story of history and blood lines and governments denial and stance.  For this purpose, I teach to a crowd of people who are born broken.  If you are displaced, if you are unsure of your real home, if you aren’t granted access into the rights of your people, or you aren’t granted a place to practice your true beliefs as been passed down than you have to born broken, born with a limp wing.

My school does a lot to heal that heartbreak.  We have “Indian Education” and performances by the local tribe for all of the student population so that they can understand the stories, dances, songs, instruments, and ideas of the tribal people living in their neighborhood.  It’s actually one of the most entertaining and inviting shows at school.  It is my job as an educator to know my student’s homes.  I may not have ever traveled down the dirt road where their parents keep a home, one lone tire swing and a broken screen door, but I’ve heard their stories even when not directly told to me.

Taking of Mary Jemison by Robert Griffing

I once called home to a student’s father and he cried at the news that his daughter was amazing and I was giving her an award for being an overall wonderful student.  He cried to me on the phone saying he had never heard a teacher’s voice, let alone praise for his only daughter, who happened to be the first redheaded Native American girl that I had ever met.  She looked like me, freckled and unpolished.  That’s what I try to teach my students, it isn’t what we look like, but who we are on the inside, these stories we keep folded into the space between our fingers that teach us about others and about ourselves.

Because I teach that beautiful redhead and many other First Nation students, I like to read a lot of Native American literature.  I read it for my own education and for the education of my students.  I tend to mow-down young adult First Nation literature the most because I know when I ask my students to take a book from the classroom shelf that they will see a story about themselves in the binding.  Now, I’m not talking about Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich although they’re both GREAT AUTHORS.  I’m talking true accounts, or accounts that have been fictionalized from true knowledge, accounts that feel true, not true to the white person who as my students put it “aren’t about that life,” but accounts from the mouths of Native people themselves.

The White by Deborah Lawson

When I was in Williamsburg, I had to search through the bookstore to see if there was anything worth grabbing up for my students.  I was lucky enough to find a book titled The White by Deborah Larsen.  The White is a fictionalized story of Mary Jemison whose true story was that she was taken as a young adult female into a Seneca tribe as a replacement soul for the soul of a brother taken by whites.  Larsen does an adequate job of interweaving the true account as told by a physician who listened to Mary’s story and wrote the words for her, and Larsen’s fictionalized vision of who this young girl was and grew up to be.   It’s that perfect blend of two cultures, it’s what my students are.  Mary realizes throughout the story the different parts of herself and what she’s decided to keep from each upbringing.  She realizes she’s unable to read at one point and makes it her mission to learn every new word she comes across to teach to her children.

“Pardon me. What are ‘dregs’?”

Mary never forgets the day she was taken, her study of snow with her British family, or the shadows of the scalping that killed all of her younger brothers and sisters, but she also learns to embrace Seneca life and marries two strong Seneca men.  To be honest, I was in love with Sheninjee.  He was so respectful of Mary’s lack of affection towards him and finally when they did become husband and wife in the biblical sense, it was told in the slight brushing of fingertips against a collarbone.  That is beautiful young adult literature, just a pebble thrown in water with the page’s white space as all the small circles that wake out.

The Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison by James Seaver

“Let her leave if she wishes,’ Sheninjee said. ‘My first act as her husband would be to set her free.  If she passed from our village, I would ask our people not to pursue her” (59).

The White shows the acceptance and deep warmth of the Seneca towards Mary and her growth towards loving them.  By the end of the book, it’s safe to say that Mary is neither Seneca, nor white, but she’s what the character’s call a “white witch,” a woman who lives in both worlds, both languages, and has both spirits.  I hope this story, though fictionalized, helps my students break boundaries.  It’s written with very poetic language, lots of white space, lots of things go unspoken as the people of the Seneca choose wisely where to put words.  I’ve never had to choose wisely where to put words, or choose when to speak really unless it’s in interrupting someone else, but I like the idea of a choice.  Now we just talk to talk.  We talk on the phone, through instant social media and text message, letter-writing.  I’m talking right now as I write this and the words move bumbling on my lips. Just imagine if we started choosing when to speak, it became a choice.  Maybe we’d create a generation of listeners, or just a generation that tries harder to understand.

Here is a chapter from the physician’s account of Captivity Narrative about Mary Jemison.

About my thoughts on talking by choice, Ted Talk: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

6 thoughts on “How Do We Learn Understanding: Read

    • Cassie says:

      A lot of my bookish friends said the same. I’m not sure how old the book is, but one of my friends said that she had to read it for a Native American studies course in college. I’m surprised I missed it, but at least I found it now. :)

  1. bea says:

    What a beautiful story, and I am so happy your students will find it in your classroom. The blog was also beautifully written, and it made me want to read the book.

  2. Cristina says:

    What a great job you are doing with those children. Feeling (often) misplaces myself as a child, I wish I had a teacher like you. Someone who would just GET IT. I’m putting ´´The White´´ on my to-read list!

    • Cassie says:

      I so hope you will read it and like it. It’s definitely written in a different style and has a VERY slow start, but I found it helped me to read it aloud. Thank you for your wonderful comments on teaching. : )

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