Myth, Memory, and Meaning in a Democracy

“Daddy, did George Washington really chop down a cherry tree? And what does apocryphal mean?”

When my Second Grade daughter asked me these questions last week, I was filled with gratitude for her teachers, and her inclusion in an educational environment that teaches children to think critically about the stories they hear and the evidence that is presented. Not to mention the sophisticated vocabulary building!

For over 200 years, the United States has celebrated Columbus Day each October. How did the apocryphal myth of Columbus as the benevolent discoverer of America come to be, and why? Who has benefited from it, and who has suffered? This past weekend a parent shared the video Why The US Celebrates Columbus Day with me, which delves into the historical and social forces at work. That video, along with the TedEd video titled History vs Christopher Columbus, sparked a lively discussion among faculty about how we are discussing the topic in our upper school classrooms.

At Gateway we do not take a day off from school for Columbus Day; instead we recognize Indigenous People’s Day. And so today I reflected on the land acknowledgement Gateway School began offering at major gatherings and events last year. Our statement reads: 

Gateway School recognizes it is built upon land taken from the people who lived where the school now stands. We acknowledge the many tribes that gathered here, the Rumsien, the Amah Mutsun, and those of the Awaswas language group, to name a few. The Indigenous people lived with respect upon this land for thousands of years, and many still live here today.

A land acknowledgement makes worthy observation, but it is not enough. We are called to action, not only in considering the legacy of the world that has come before, but also the world we wish to leave to future generations. 

In every school, educators make choices about what is taught and what is not taught. Too often, the voices and experiences of the oppressed and invisible have been removed from the curriculum of this country. Many of us were taught irrelevant fact knowledge such as names of the three ships Columbus commanded, but not the names of the indigenous people who lived on the lands he reached. This is where the integration of the Anti-Bias Framework and Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance make a difference in Gateway classrooms.

At our school, we answer the call to action through our educational program. Students can learn about the role Columbus’ story has played in the assimilation of Italian Americans into white society, and also acknowledge the lives and experiences of the native Taino people that he slaughtered and enslaved. We can study the convoluted history of race and class in America as reflected in the story of Columbus Day, and also, as our 7th & 8th grade Humanities class is doing, critically examining a primary source document such as last week’s Columbus Day proclamation issued by the White House while asking questions such as, Why does the President frame these conversations as replacement and revision? Why would he not want the failings, atrocities and transgressions of Columbus discussed? And why would he use this opportunity to attack critical thinking about race and history?

We are in a national political moment fraught with purpose as the Senate begins Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the Presidential election approaches in just a few short weeks. This is a ripe time for students to learn not only about the three branches of our federal government and the mechanics of elections such as the Electoral College and the drawing of Congressional districts, but also to think critically about topics such as voter ID laws and when/whether they reduce fraud or function as voter suppression; the rhetoric of propaganda and use of negative advertising; and most importantly, the critical issues driving social discussion, from reproductive rights to gun ownership rights and from minimum wage to medical care.

All education is political — this is a fundamental axiom of existing in a society. As a nonprofit organization, Gateway will never support a particular political party or candidate; and by contrast, we will always guide students to look deeply at the specific issues, the arguments and perspectives that are presented of differing viewpoints (let’s not say “opposing sides”, as there are far more than two perspectives on these issues), and lead them towards applying these thoughtful critiques in service of their own meaning-making and the development of their personal ethics.

I’m proud and excited that our school gym will be used as a polling place for the elections taking place on November 3rd. Though this will cause some disruption to our use of the campus during the time poll workers and voters are on our campus, providing a space for the residents of Santa Cruz to vote embodies our school’s mission to inspire citizenship. Many years from now, I hope our students will take pride in knowing that people used our gym for this essential political purpose.

I was glad to explain to my 8 year old that people tell the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to make him appear more honest and more accessible than he may otherwise have seemed. She already knows he was a slave owner; I’ll be ready when she asks about the myth of his wooden teeth.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School