No choice necessary

Schools are places of learning.

Learning sometimes involves facing painful truths and deconstructing former myths.

Public schools can and should be open to and embracing of the wide range of students they teach.

The old idea of the American melting pot — in which public schools played a central role in shaping a single American ideal from the many cultures that have created the United States of America — has happily been replaced by a tossed salad metaphor: People from diverse places with equally diverse cultures have come together as one.

As a student at Guilderland Elementary School in the middle of the last century, I recited with my classmates:

In fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue ….

With construction paper and popsicle sticks, we made crude depictions of the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain — the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. In short, when October rolled around, we celebrated Columbus.

Of course, as I grew up, I learned more. By the end of the 20th Century, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage loomed, there was widespread recognition in the United States and around the world of the harm caused not just by Columbus himself but by European colonists in general to indigenous peoples.

After all, in 1500, King Ferdinand of Spain, which had sponsored Columbus’s voyages, had him imprisoned for his horrible treatment of indigenous people.

This all flashed through my mind this week as I listened to the Guilderland School Board members discussing a draft of their calendar for the 2023-24 school year.

First of all, I was thrilled that April 10, 2024 will be a school holiday for Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.

We had written over the last school year and this school year about the Muslim students who had advocated to have their religious holiday recognized. “Eid is like Christmas for us,” Arisha Ahmed told the school board in February 2022. “Imagine having to go to school on Christmas. It is as simple as that.”

This past October, Areej Naina told the board that the current school policy is to give Muslim students an excused holiday for Eid “but it doesn’t eliminate the problem we have of trying to make up homework and classwork.”

We advocated along with the students on this page, as we had two decades ago with the Jewish students who wanted Yom Kippur recognized by the school.

Every day less than the 180 school days required by the state would cost the district about $86,000, or a year’s salary for a teacher.

The situation with Oct. 9 is different. It is already marked as a holiday but it is listed as both Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day. The board has discussed the topic, off and on, for over a year.

At the end of the Jan. 10 meeting, Vice President Kelly Person said, “It seems like we’re holding on to something for no particular reason …. I don’t see any organizations keeping both,” said Person, citing her own work calendar, from the federal government, which calls the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“I think it’s ridiculous to have both,” agreed the board’s president, Seema Rivera.

Superintendent Marie Wiles said the purpose of the calendar is to get the required number of days of instruction. “How it gets labeled is ultimately a board decision,” said Wiles, adding she would like guidance.

She also said of choosing Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day, “I would caution, we will hear about it.”

Gloria Towle-Hilt, the board’s longest-serving member, said she didn’t like to “just jump into a decision.”

Ultimately, all eight board members present at the Jan. 10 meeting voted in favor of Nathan Sabourin’s motion to remove Columbus Day from the current draft of the calendar. That would leave just Indigenous Peoples’ Day as the designation.

The board will vote on the calendar — and presumably the designation for Oct. 9 — at its next meeting, on Jan. 31.

We’re glad the board gave itself some time to think. Soon after the start of this century, parents had petitioned the district to offer Italian as a foreign language. The classes have been popular, in part because the town has a large population with Italian heritage.

We don’t shy away from stating our opinions because we worry about pushback; we hear from readers who disagree with us almost every week because of words we write on this page.

Rather, we’re not sure everyone who wants to erase Columbus Day understands the history of that day as it relates to Italian immigrants in America.

In the late 19th Century, Italian immigrants came to the United States in droves. Most of them were laborers or farmers, looking for work — by 1920, more than 4 million had come to America.

Many of them were reviled. Stereotyped as lazy or criminal or worse, many suffered extreme prejudice. We are ashamed to say that even the pages of The Altamont Enterprise reflected this bigotry. It was everywhere.

In 1909, the East Berne correspondent reported, “A skating party had a real nice time on the ice near the Dago Shack, Monday evening,” before going on to name the skaters. There were reports of Italian immigrants being hurt or even killed working on the railroad or building roads.

“Fire again destroyed the Italian shanty situated along the railroad in the northwest portion of the village,” The Enterprise reported on Dec. 5, 1918. That same year, “an Italian living in the old bakery building on Prospect street, created considerable excitement for a short time Tuesday afternoon by pummeling and stamping on his eldest son …. The residents of the entire neighborhood were witnesses of the affair and were very indignant over the Italian’s brutal action.” The report concluded not with concern for the boy but rather for decorum: “Police officials of the village should see that our residents are not forced to witness such scenes in the future.”

The nationwide prejudice against Italians had exploded in 1891 after a New Orleans police chief, David Hennessy, who had frequently arrested Italian Americans, was murdered. Over a hundred Italian Americans were arrested following Hennessy’s death and, after nine of the accused were acquited, a mob broke into Parish Prison and 11 of the men were lynched.

No one in the mob who lynched the 11 Italian Americans was prosecuted.

When the United States did not pay the reparations Italy demanded following the mass lynchings, Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States and brought home its ambassador. The United States responded in kind.

To appease Italy, President Benjamin Harrison that year proclaimed a day of celebration for “the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus,” during which Americans were to “devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”

Harrison’s proclamation went on, “The system of universal education is in our age the most prominent and salutary feature of the spirit of enlightenment, and it is peculiarly appropriate that the schools be made by the people the center of the day’s demonstration. Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.”

The Enterprise, like newspapers across the state, ran a message, directed at teachers, alerting them to the “National Columbus Public School Celebration to be held on October 12, 1892.” New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction Andrew Draper concluded by hoping that “trustees, parents, pupils and all will join to make this one of the greatest celebrations of the age.”

Our history columnist, Mary Ellen Johnson, last October detailed local 1892 schoolhouse celebrations — in Guilderland Center and Fullers, in Altamont and Settles Hill. Children waved flags, wore costumes, and gave recitations.

This was the seed, planted in 1892, that Italian Americans nourished as they pushed, state by state, for a national holiday, finally made official in 1939 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.”

Certainly, Columbus and the Europeans that followed and colonized the continent did much harm to the indigenous peoples. And many might rightfully be affronted by the notion that the so-called “New World” was “discovered” when, of course, indigenous people had inhabited the land for millenia.

But, Columbus is still an important historical figure, standing for the bringing — some might say crashing — together two different worlds. We don’t have to lionize Columbus but we shouldn’t erase him either any more than we should erase, say, George Washington’s importance to our nation’s history because he was a slaveholder.

We were pleased, after Joe Biden became president in 2021, that he proclaimed the first National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations,” the proclamation said.

The proclamation also recognized, “For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.”

At the same time, and worth noting by the Guilderland School Board, Biden also issued a proclamation recognizing Columbus Day, stating, “While he intended to end his quest in Asia, his 10-week journey instead landed him on the shores of the Bahamas, making Columbus the first of many Italian explorers to arrive in what would later become known as the Americas. Many Italians would follow his path in the centuries to come, risking poverty, starvation, and death in pursuit of a better life. Today, millions of Italian Americans continue to enrich our country’s traditions and culture and make lasting contributions to our Nation ….”

But, the same proclamation said, “Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities. It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

We’re better off if we don’t think of our nation as a melting pot where the various elements meld together under extreme heat. That forces us to be made of the same substance when clearly we’re not. It puts public schools in a particularly difficult place — to educate children into one way of thinking, one idea of who is a hero or who is a victim.

Toni Morrison put it well: “The melting pot never worked,” she said. “We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hasidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastfarians to Ralph Bunche.”

We understand why indigenous peoples chose Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, to celebrate as their own rather than any of the other days of the year. And we think they should have the right to be recognized on that day — not just for the harm they suffered from the colonizers but for the worth of their cultures in their own right.

But we don’t think the Guilderland School Board — nor any other American — has to choose between the two. There is enough room in the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution, predicated in part on Native American cultures, to allow us the freedom to think on that October day of Columbus and Italian-American heritage or of the worth of indigenous people.

One needn’t cancel out the other. It is not a zero-sum game.

And the best we can teach our children is to learn about the complexities of history. Part of that is learning that human beings who have changed the world, for better or worse, are worth understanding.


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