'Pilgrims are people who ate up most all the turkey'

''Pilgrims,'' said seven-year-old Tim wearily, ''are people you have to hear stories about when it's near Thanksgiving.'' His words took me back to my Pilgrim problems in third grade. The class had been given the inevitable Pilgrim picture to color - Pilgrim family seated at the table, heads bowed in prayer.

Mrs. McDonald, my teacher, saw me coloring a Pilgrim girl's dress red. She was horrified!

''No, No!'' she said. ''Pilgrim children never wore red. They wore black, brown, and gray.''

Obviously doubting my abilty to reform, she took away my red crayon.

But, I wasn't the only one in trouble. A boy named Walter was coloring the Pilgrim fathers' shoe buckles gold.

Mrs. McDonald quickly moved in on Walter.

''Black! Walter! Black! Pilgrims did not wear colorful clothing. No gold buckles!''

Walter, usually a model of decorum, responded with uncustomary sullenness. ''I don't like Pilgrims! They're boring and I hate to color people who wear black and brown all the time.''

Walter was sent to stand in the hall, where, he was told, he was to think about his ''ungracious attitude toward Pilgrims.''

His picture, with the Pilgrim father in gold buckles, was sent to the wastebasket.

The incident probably did not increase Walter's affection for Pilgrims.

In the years since, I have realized that Walter's lack of enthusiasm for Pilgrims is not unusual. We respect the early settlers, but they don't interest us much.

As teachers, we feel obliged to spend some time on Pilgrims in November. The results are often disappointing. I asked my friend Nancy, a second-grade teacher , what she does on Pilgrims.

''About half an hour,'' she replied honestly. ''You know, the story of the first Thanksgiving. Children seem to find them boring. They prefer turkey or Indian stories.''

So did Walter.

Stories about Pilgrims usually emphasize their grim determination, capacity for hard work, and somber life. All of which is admirable, but they don't seem very human.

Children today, unfortunately, don't seem to find early settlers any more rewarding than Walter did.

Brian, a charming seven-year-old, has given the matter some thought. ''Pilgrims are people only teachers talk about. At home we never talk about them.''

Randy offers another viewpoint: ''Pilgrims are people who liked to pray most all the time. They even prayed when they got their pictures taken because every picture I've seen of them, they was praying.''

Do you suppose Randy has to color the same pictures Walter and I did?

Invariably, there is a turkey on the table.

''Pilgrims are people who came here 100 years ago and ate up most all the turkey,'' Adam explains. ''Every time I see their pictures, they are eating turkey. That's why we only can have turkey on Thanksgiving.''

Amanda, who is eight, harbors suspicions about the culinary abilities of the Pilgrim women.

''The first people who came here were named Pilgrim and the moms couldn't cook very well. So, they asked the Indians to Thanksgiving dinner and the Indians showed them how to cook and everyone was real thankful for that.''

Pilgrims have no individual identity to most children. Only two in 60 responded with a name when asked about the Pilgrims.

Eight-year-old Megan seems to regard one of the early arrivals as, perhaps, the beginning of the tourist industry.

''Crister Clumus was a pilgrim. He didn't have any job so he didn't have money for his vacation. So, he went downtown to the castle and asked the queen to buy him some boats. Well, she liked Crister pretty good, so she buyed them. Then he called his friends and asked them to go for a vacation to look at Indians.''

But, where, you may wonder, is the historic perspective? Do these children see only the superficial aspects of their forefathers? Do they not know why the Pilgrims came to America?

Patrick, a blond, blue-eyed third grader, told me one of the best Pilgrim stories I've ever heard.

''Pilgrims are people who were Englands and the King of the Englands said they all got to go to his Sunday school, but the pilgrims didn't think it was any fun there. So they got in their boats again and they went to Dutch. Well, the King of Dutch said they got to go to his Sunday school. But, it wasn't fun either. So they got in their boats again and came here and went to Sunday school with the Indians.''

Only one child, the son of a history professor, seemed to find Pilgrims really a compelling subject.

''Well, in England there was a bossy king who said everyone had to go to his church. Some people didn't want to, so they left. Those were Pilgrims. But, guess what they did! Some of them got real bossy and said everyone had to go to the Pilgrim church. And, some of the Pilgrims were so bossy, that when some Quakers came and wouldn't go to the Pilgrims' church, the Pilgrims cut one ear off each Quaker they caught.''

The class was fascinated. Charles continued, ''And in Boston, they even hung three Quakers.

''And some guy named Roger Williams told the bossy Pilgrims to stop it. So, the bossy Pilgrims kicked Roger right out of the colony. Roger didn't care. He started his own colony on Rhode Island where people could go to any church they wanted, or, even if they just wanted to sleep late on Sunday, they could.

''And later on, in this town called Salem, they had these witch trials and. . . .''

I wish Walter could have been there. He would have loved it!

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