First Teacher

Chief Joseph

The front door opened and promptly slammed. The timing was expected, as the kids were getting home from school. Trooping through the door didn’t seem unusual-but that slamming of the front door sounded emotional. In the hallway I encountered my little fourth grader, my girl, who wouldn’t catch my eye or respond to “how was your day.”  She stomped into her bedroom, pushing her door closed. And then the crying began.

I waited a moment, finally tapping and entering her room. She didn’t want to explain, didn’t want to talk to me at all. Concerned, I sat on her bed and rubbed her back while she sobbed. After a while my girl composed herself and began her story.

In Idaho schools Fourth Grade Social Studies covers state history. From memorizing all the names of counties, to mapping locations, to learning “Here We Have Idaho,” the state song; 9-years-olds learned it all. On that day the lesson covered Native American tribes in the state. 

The teacher read Chief Joseph’s “I Will Fight No More Forever,” speech, the one Joseph declared when his people, the Nez Perce, surrendered to the Army just short of the Canadian border. 

My little girl understood, perhaps for the first time, the power of compassion and of tragedy. Watching as her heart absorbed a tough, American injustice, my heart filled as well. This kid sensed something deep, an empathy that still alludes many. In that moment we shared a thoughtful, teachable chapter in American History.

I didn’t accost the principal, nor complain to the school board. To those who do, railing to  ban books, or challenge curriculum, remember that your children are watching. Honest concerns are one matter, but raising hell in public meetings frightens your grade schoolers, confuses your middle schoolers, and mortifies your high schoolers.

Besides, as a child’s first teacher, parents are demonstrating that raging and bullying in public is acceptable as a means to solve disagreements.

Leave schools alone, leave libraries alone. Get to know the teachers, volunteer in the classroom. You’ll find American schools do a tremendous job, much better than we could do ourselves. 

As for Chief Joseph, my daughter grew from that experience. Maybe parents should do likewise.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has also written two plays, “Clay,” about the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” examining the beginnings of American slavery.

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