It was a gray November evening in a grey classroom painted by bright smiles. I was an ESL teacher for newly arrived immigrants, a role that encompassed both instructing English and serving as a gateway to an often confusing culture.
As I started with my usual happy “Hello class!” and received the usual happy “Hello teacher!” I saw a confused look on the face of Mrs. Minh. “Teacher,” she said, “all I see are pictures in the store of big birds and men in black with guns. What is this?”
I explained that the birds were turkeys and the men in black were Pilgrims. This did not help Mrs. Minh. The confused look remained, and I saw it mirrored in the faces of her classmates. Hafiz put up his hand and asked, “Teacher, you to please tell us the turkey story?”
The turkey story indeed. High school civics taught me about the Mayflower Compact. A job put food on my table and a roof over my head. What did I know about a dangerous journey to an unknown land? Then I realized my students deserved something more than textbook history. It was not my story to tell, but theirs.
I took a deep breath. “Class,” I began, “many, many years ago there were people called Pilgrims who wanted a better life and freedom. They sailed a boat called the Mayflower from England to America. When they landed, it was wintertime. They were cold and hungry. Parents had to bury their children when they died from disease. It was very, very hard. Many times the Pilgrims wanted to return home, but they stayed.
“The next year they made friends with the Indians, who taught them how to farm and build warm houses. After working two, maybe three jobs a day, finally they were able to build schools, roads and hospitals. The Pilgrims knew they were never alone. They knew God was helping them. So the next year they held a big feast with their Indian friends to give thanks for their lives in this new land. They shared the turkey because one bird could feed many people, just as they knew that one day this land would make a life for many people.”
I paused. All eyes were upon me. “ My friends, this is a story from many years ago. But I see it here in the faces of every person in this class. You have come to America to make a better life for you and your families. Today it is hard. Tomorrow it will be hard.
“You may not have any money, but you have a dream. This dream is all the Pilgrims had, and one day, their dream became real. I promise you, as your teacher and your friend, that if you stay here your dreams will also come true. You are all Pilgrims. With God’s help all of you will make a great life and a great land.”
The room was silent. Mrs. Minh nodded her head. I walked down the aisles, shook everyone’s hand and wished them all a Happy Thanksgiving.