From the mouths of babes


Sometimes teaching is drudgery.  The worksheets, the assessments, the checklists, the mountains of papers to correct and sort and file.  Sometimes it seems as if the whole exercise is designed to bore everyone into submission.

But sometimes there are moments, sometimes there are days, when teaching reminds me of why I still have hope for the future.

Yesterday was one of those days.

We were doing a lesson on the “Triangle of Trade” in the mid-eighteenth century.  I walked around the classroom, which had been labelled with various geographic locations, showing how goods travelled from England to the Colonies, from the Colonies to the West Indies, and from those islands to West Africa and on to England.

The Triangle of Trade

The Triangle of Trade

I showed them how the whole process worked at the same time in reverse: Africa to the West Indies, to the Colonies to England.  Guns and rum to Africa, slaves to the West Indies to make the molasses to ship to New England to make the rum to send to Africa for more slaves.  Its a complex economic situation for ten year old children to grasp, but as often happens, they jumped straight to the main issue.

“Why would anyone want to be a slave?”, one boy asked.  I explained the issue of kidnapping and tribal conflict, describing in ten year old terms how brutal the whole thing had been.

“But why would anyone do something like that to other people?”  We looked at the map, I let them talk; eventually they realized that those human beings were part of a thriving economy.  They understood that in that setting, human life was worth less than some barrels of molasses or bales of tobacco.

As the discussion went on, more and more probing questions were asked. “If there were so many slaves, why didn’t they rise up and take over?”   That brought a long talk about power.  The conclusion that these children came to?

The white owners had the power.  Power came from weapons and from education and knowledge.

“If the people in Africa had been white, do you think they would have been taken as slaves?”  That talk went on for almost ten minutes, in small groups of kids.  The conclusion?

White people would not have kidnapped and enslaved other white people. First because slaves had to stand out in the crowd, otherwise they could just run away and pretend to be regular citizens.  And, “I think you have to make people seem really different from you if you are going to do something awful to them.”

I’m not sure how they came to be so wise and so astute at such a tender age, but they fill me with hope and with some sense that my grandchildren may grow up in a world with more gentleness and sensitivity than we see now.

Maybe I’m a crazy optimist, but some days are just like that.  From the mouths of babes come moments of transcendent faith.

10 thoughts on “From the mouths of babes

  1. I think you had a good day too and, yes, the students certainly affirm that we will be in good hands as long as we temper our wishes with theirs, and add little wisdom.
    By the way, I’m from another former colony, Newfoundland-Labrador, Canada, and in early days we, too, participated in several such triangles. For example, salt and dried cod from Newfoundland was traded in Spain (cheap portable food, particularly good for armies on the march) for finer goods such as textiles, dyes and spices. These, in turn, were traded in England for more basic necessities.
    As a related aside the low grade cod was sold in the West Indies as it provided cheap high-grade food to the HUGE slave population there. It was traded for the also plentiful (but not so nourishing) rum. This was basic reciprocation, not a triangle. Some of that tradition still continues. People from my province still prefer rum over just about any other such beverage. The term ‘West Indies’ is still applied to mean low grade fish and dishes made from that salt cod are still delicacies in the Caribbean islands.

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    • Thank you so much for this fascinating information! I am embarrassed to say that I know very little about the history of Newfoundland, or of Canada in general (except as to how it impacted American history, of course!) I will share this information with the kids, who will have dozens of fabulous questions. Now I need to read up on more North American history, for sure!

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      • It’s actually very fascinating! Newfoundland-Labrador has actually only been a part of Canada since 1949. Before that we were a British Colony. We did have our own government, but in the end, we were subject to the British crown. One important part of that was the fact that we felt as close to the USA as we did to both Canada and Great Britain. It was commonplace for US fishermen to fish and get bait in our waters and just as common for Newfoundlanders to go to “The Boston States” for work. My Dad, for example, spent 5 years working in Boston in the 1930’s. Newfoundlanders were also prominent in New York during the early ‘skyscraper’ era where they worked shoulder to shoulder with the Mowhawks as ironworkersl. To a Newfoundlander that high steel was no different from rigging a three-masted schooner in a storm. In fact, at the time of our joining Canada, joining the USA was a carefully-considered and hotly-contested option. The US was, at the time, operating four significant military bases on our soil.

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  2. Beautiful story – thanks for sharing it. We all need a shot of hope for the future now and then.
    If no one has told you today: thank you for what you do. Teachers are some of the world’s most unsung heroes!

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    • Oh, thank you! I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a job that allows me spend the vast majority of my time in the company of children. Exhausting, but wonderful; that’s teaching.

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  3. Fascinating story. You have some very astute critical thinkers there. They’ve spotted that the root of the problem is when one group of people decides that another group of people aren’t quite as human as they are – something that sadly goes well beyond the scope of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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