The last of the buckled black hats have gone home and Mattie Brown folds into the foot-high chair. Brown, a second-grade teacher, appears tired yet unfazed this November evening as she describes her approach to a major American holiday that celebrates, basically, the settlement of a group of white Anglo-Saxon protestants. Nearly half of Brown' students at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville are black, Hispanic or Asian, giving the school one of the highest minority enrollments in the county.
"History is history and, simply, it should be taught as history," says Brown. "Although we may have to make it childlike for them to understand, we also have to be honest about it and make it real.
"We can't talk about people at the (first Thanksgiving) dinner who weren't there. The students can see that there are no blacks in the picture but still they don't really ask any questions about it at this grade level. They're just more into history as it is presented."
Questions black students may have about their ancestors' arrival in this country may come later, Brown concedes, but for now she is concentrating on presenting the details history outlines of the days that led from the troubled crossing of the Mayflower to the first Thanksgiving and what it means to each child as an American.
"The black and white thing just doesn't concern them. What we want to show is that by helping each other, like the Indians and pilgrims did, we can all be helped.
Some of the people who were at that first Thanksgiving table in Plymouth in 1621 are being depicted in a new light, however, at last partially in response to minority sensitivities.
"The pilgrims landed at Plymouth, she told the engrossed children sitting cross-legged at her feet. (But they weren't the first people in America... You know the pilgrims were very happy that the Indians taught them how to hunt and plant corn."
Sitting in a rocking chair under three hand-printed posters chronicling the first Thanksgiving, Brown took an approach last week that reflected the changes that have occurred during the last two decades in attitudes toward the American Indian. Since the mid-70s a movement has been under way to purge textbooks of pejorative words like "squaw" and "brave" and to portray the Indians' role as that of the pilgrims' ally. Whereas once the Indian was characterized as attacking the settlers, most textbooks now claim the pilgrims probably would not have survived their first winters at Plymouth and Jamestown if the Indians had not shown them how to farm and hunt.
Much of Brown's final day of instruction about Thanksgiving was spent reminding her students of the Indians' importance to the pilgrims' survival -- and preparing for their own mini-Thanksgiving feast of popcorn, raisins and grapes.
Sitting at Brown's feet before they donned the pilgrim and Indian headresses they had constructed out of paper, the children talked about Squanto, a Patuxtent Indian who had shared seeds and planting skills with the pilgrims, and the Indians' contribution to the first Thanksgiving meal.
"They brought special meat and deer meat and taught the pilgrims how to hunt," one young boy explained.
"Someone accidently dropped a piece of dried corn over the fire and they got popcorn," another said.
"But they didn't have any bananas."
The heavy emphasis on the Thanksgiving curriculum is part of a countywide effort to capitalize on the excitement that usually surrounds holidays. Starting in October with Halloween, each second-grade teacher is expected to use a holiday to teach another skill and expose students to other cultures.
Brown said the inclusion of holidays like Kwanzaa, and Afro-American December celebration, and Martin Luther King's birthday probably temper any feelings of exclusion the black students might have.
"We're not really talking about any one particular holiday," Brown said as she explained her approach. "When we spend a lot of time on Martin Luther King's birthday and Kwanzaa, the white students don't ask why they're not in the pictures."
"The holidays at this age are just fun for them."
Each teacher at the second-grade level in the county is given a set of uniform objectives to be covered in the holiday curricula, but how those objectives are met is left to the individual teacher.
Sometimes part of those objectives include a little humor.
Brown asked each student to paste a picture of a Thanksgiving dish on a long roll of orange paper. One student in the front row turned to her seatmate and giggled when Brown asked her to place the turkey on the pseudo-dining cloth.
"Turkey"? That's what my aunt calls me."