Saturday, March 04, 2017

This complicated state of ours

From today's Briefing:

If you ask my fourth-graders for a quick history of Texas, they’d tell you something like this, give or take a few facts:
Thousands of years ago, people crossed the Bering Strait, following giant animals, into what we call North America. Some of those people settled here, on the land we call Texas.
They lived on their own for a long time, until the Spanish traveled across the sea and planted a flag and said, “This is our land.”
The Spanish flag flew over this soil for a while, until the French arrived and claimed the land. That lasted for about five years, until the Spanish reclaimed Texas and said again, “This is our land.”
Spain ruled until Mexico declared independence in 1821. Then Mexico said, “This is our land,” and the Mexican flag flew over Texas.
Mexico invited settlers from America in to Texas, to develop and protect the land. Then Santa Anna became president, and the Texians who had moved in didn’t agree with his new rules, so they fought for independence and eventually won at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Texas became its own republic for about 10 years, until the United States annexed us as the 28th state of the Union. The U.S. flag flew over Texas from 1845 until 1861, when Texas seceded and became part of the Confederacy. When the South lost the Civil War, Texas rejoined the United States.
Their story would end there, because that’s as far as we’ve progressed. You’d likely see a lot of sweeping hand motions and dramatic planting of flags. (Some would ignore “quick” and take off on a tangent regarding Karankawa Indians or the Battle of Alamo.) The cattle industry, discovery of oil and Dust Bowl are still to come.
If you ask my fourth-graders for their opinions of Texas history, the answers would be less rehearsed and more emotional. Learning about history is complicated.
My students struggle with the conquering.
They don’t understand how one group of people can show up, plant a flag and take over. They sympathize with the American Indians who were killed by European diseases and later pressured to give up their land, their religion, their language and their way of life, forced to conform at Spanish missions and later at the hands of Texas officials.
Together we struggle with “good guys” vs. “bad guys” in history.
They learn best when I dramatize the Texas Revolution as the good guys (Texians) vs. the bad guys (Santa Anna and the Mexicans). Indeed, we draw many parallels between Santa Anna and Darth Vader. Yet the facts are more nuanced.
Texas settlers did break agreements made with Mexico. They had agreed to adopt Catholicism and the Spanish language, yet they were reluctant to keep those promises.
There’s no doubt that Santa Anna was a power-hungry tyrant. But the men following his orders: They couldn’t be all bad, could they? And what do Mexican children today learn about our fight for freedom? Are we the bad guys?
Plus, Mexico was opposed to slavery, a position that helped push pro-slavery Texas settlers to fight for freedom. So, why are the “good guys” supporting slavery?
Speaking of which, my students struggle most of all with slavery. They are indignant. At times, even, uncharacteristically speechless.
When they regain words, they ask about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which they know contains these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
These 9- and 10-year-olds are sharp. They make connections across the centuries. They question decisions. They wonder about turning points and potentially different outcomes.

One day their stories will merge with our bigger history. They’ll grow up to be disciplined,  leaders – or, at the very least, citizens who hold their leaders accountable.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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