Today is Columbus Day here in the United States as well as Thanksgiving for our Canadian neighbors. And while my northern friends are eating holiday-themed tasty treats, we Columbus Day celebrators will be eating the same-old same-old, I suppose. Although, perhaps we US folk should be eating crow today. Because so many years of history instruction missed a tiny-little detail: Columbus didn’t discover an empty continent way back on October 12, 1492. He discovered a continent filled with many treasures and potential boons to the coffers of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella. Oh, and he discovered the people who lived, worked, and called the “new world” something a bit more simple: home. And all those treasures and coffer-filling things? They belonged not to Columbus in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella. Today, we would call Columbus’s expedition “trespassing” and his collection of gold and other things “stealing”. How we look at history and truth has changed.
Am I saying all these years later we need to make atonement for what was done to the indigenous peoples? Well, it would be nice but it is an impossibility. However, we could stop teaching our history in such a flawed manner. Or, we could at least acknowledge that our history books show only our perspective on the matter. In other words, the preserved history is that of the winner. What the next generation learns is told through the perspective of the ones left standing long enough to tell their story. It is their version of the truth that becomes historical fact.
When I was a child I never questioned what I was taught about history. I just knew that I found it fascinating. It was still the time of encyclopedias and dictionaries filled with book dust that tickled my nose. The stack of National Geographics stored in the attic? Literally years were spent thumbing through the pictures of people from far away places, each time noticing something different. Sometimes I noticed how we were different. But sometimes I noticed how we were alike. As a farm kid with long, cold winters and a 10″ black and white television, I learned to piece together stories from those books and magazines, and in doing so I pieced together my world.
Years later I was in high school with a thought-provoking history teacher. His name was Jim Deardorff and I loved him and his brown suit coats and moments where he would interrupt his lecture to swill more Mylanta from his bottom desk drawer. On the first day of class my junior year, Mr. Deardorff handed out the US History textbook. After calling our names and noting our book numbers, he said, “You are responsible for this text book. I don’t care what you do with it. You can even read it for all I care. Just be sure you turn in THAT book on the last day of class.” And then he went on to lecture via miles of over-head projector film and files pulled from the 5-drawer filing cabinets that lined the walls of his classroom.
To say he made history fun for me is an understatement. However, my life changed the day he responded to one of my classmate’s questioning of Mr. Deardorff’s lecture.
“Truth? You want the truth? Well, you can’t have it. Not in some easy little story. Finding the truth takes time and effort!” By then he was excited or agitated or frustrated by years spent trying to teach students to think for themselves. He ran over and yanked open a file drawer and pulled out several inches of file folders.
“The truth is in here!” he shouted and let the files spill across the projector. There must have been over a hundred newspaper clippings fluttering to the ground. “The New York Times, Mother Earth, The Wall Street Journal, local papers! They all have just a tiny bit of the truth!” He paused and took a deep breath while he ran his hand over his bearded face.
“If you want to know the truth, you must learn to look for it through the many eyes that saw it. No one account tells more than part of the truth.”
That year I became a questioner of facts, a collector of stories, a witness of people’s lenses through which they see their truth.
Years later I lived in Wales. It was 1989 and there were many “Troubles” happening around the globe and not only in the Celtic world. One night we gathered in the common room at Trinity and watched the news of the latest clash between the Protestant Unionists and the Catholic Nationalists across the Irish Sea. There had been yet another bombing in Dublin and the news was filled with burning cars and bloodied bodies. A member of the Sinn Fein was speaking to reporters and the BBC ran a translation of his prepared statement. Sitting there, one of a handful of American students in a room filled with mostly Welsh students, we read what the Sinn Fein said about the bombing. And then a voice broke out, bitter and lyrical. It was one of the Irish students who shouted, “That’s not what he’s saying at all!” and then he began translating for us. The BBC was not lying to the people, but it was not translating the Sinn Fein quite like how my classmate did. In other words, both parties shared their version of the truth – two sides to the same story.
When I returned home to the the US, I shared many stories including that one with my extended family. I had been attacked by a British man for being an American. While backpacking through Europe, I found no accommodations for Americans but plenty for my Vancouver BC friends. I talked about reading of the US invasion of Panama and of holding a piece of the Berlin Wall. I told stories of trying to explain what it is like to live in a nation as huge and diverse as the US; of how the actions of our government often bear no reflection of the majority’s wishes. I had explained to my classmates that, no, I did not live in a home like that on the tv program, “Dallas.” I spoke of not traveling to Rome because it was too dangerous for US students at the time. I told of being thankful for seeing the patchwork of US farmland below my airplane. I said it had been both the best experience of my life as well as the worst because I learned to look more clearly at myself and the world. I had learned to look past passports and languages and to see what we all have in common rather that what separates us.
One family member told me I had been “brainwashed” by living in the United Kingdom that year. That I had forgotten what it meant to be a real American and now I was brainwashed into believing all these crazy ideas.
My response? “I wasn’t brainwashed. I was educated. I learned that the truth is not always what it seems.”