115. St. Patrick’s Day With Juan O’Malley

full title
Juan Angus Georg Angelo O’Malley celebrates St. Patrick’s Day
by drinking tequila and while wearing lederhosen under his kilt.

It is cliche to say that we are a nation of immigrants. We are also a nation of holidays celebrating our immigrant origins – Cinco de Mayo, Octoberfest, Tartan Day, Chinese New Year, and of course, St. Patrick’s Day.

The middle school where I taught for nearly three decades was not racially diverse. We had an occasional student of East Indian heritage, a very occasional black student, but the rest of the students were divided roughly equally between Mexicans (mostly Catholic) and Anglos (mostly Mormon).

I didn’t say Mexican-Americans. The phrase seems politically correct, but it lumps some very different groups together, and not all of them like the name. There were students of Mexican heritage whose ancestors had been in California longer than I had, students whose ancestors were here before the 49ers, students who were children of recent citizens, students who were children of field workers with visas, and students who had just come over the border illegally. Some were Mexican, some were Mexican-American, and some were more American than the DAR.

The newcomers had an understandably harder attitude. A few of my students wore a T-shirt with a message that said it all:

Not Mexican-American
Not Hispanic
Not Chicano
MEXICAN!

As you might guess, Cinco de Mayo was a tense holiday for the teaching staff, but St. Patrick’s Day was neutral. I took sneaky advantage of that to tell a double story.

Pardon an aside: I got away with a lot because I liked middle school kids and I was a good science teacher. Most good science teachers escape to High School at the first opportunity. My kids always scored high on the science portion of standardized tests because I taught what was in the book first, then added what else I thought was needed. One year our seventh grade science teacher was an incompetent who was invited not to return. The following year I shoehorned four weeks of biology into my physical science class so his students would not reach high school without basic knowledge. For a few insane years, math teachers were forbidden to remediate; I squeezed remedial math into my science class. In the physics of motion chapter, I always taught the space program, including a brief history of the cold war so they would know why we went to the moon.

And I always taught the Irish immigrant story on St. Patrick’s Day.

It is a moving story, which eighth graders are old enough to appreciate. Potatoes from the new world were perfect for Irish soil; where a crop of oats had supported four people, a crop of potatoes would support eight; when previously hungry people were no longer hungry, they had more babies. Then the potato blight struck, and there was no going back to oats because the population had grown.

The land was largely owned by the English. They continued to export grain throughout the famine. Vast numbers of Irish starved. Those who could raise the money took ship for America.

The passage was hard. Ten percent of those who left Ireland died on the way. Their quarters were cramped, filthy, and unhealthy. Eighth graders both love and hate this part of the story; they have a very human capacity to be simultaneously moved and grossed out. I would walk about the room, measuring out the cubicles with hand movements, mimicking the heaving of the ship in a storm, telling of the bilge seeping up from below, pointing out the sound and smell of vomiting from seasickness, and reminding them that the cedar bucket behind that blanket at the end of the central aisle-way would fill to overflowing with human waste on the bad days when the hatches had to remain battened down.

Then I would quote a passage from a letter sent back to Ireland by an immigrant, who described the passage then said, “But I would endure all that ten times over, rather than see my children hungry.”

Once in the United States, things were still hard. The Americans who were already here didn’t want them. They could only obtain the jobs no one else wanted. Many were Gaelic speakers and did not speak English. They were segregated into the poorest part of the cities. They were disrespected.

They bettered themselves, generation by generation. They learned American democracy, and elected their own kind to office. They learned American capitalism and many became rich. Eventually, they elected one of their own, John F. Kennedy, to be president.

Along the way, they began to celebrate themselves. St. Patrick Day parades are an American invention. They have only recently begun to be celebrated back in Ireland, but they have been important in America for more than a century.

*****

You have to talk fast to get all that into forty minutes and still have time for the payoff, because the story is a lead-in to a realization, which is elicited by questions.

Who else came to America from elsewhere? (Mexicans is the answer you get, but you have to point out that the same could be said about Italians or Jews or Viet Namese or almost any immigrant group.) Who else didn’t speak the language? Who else was treated badly by the one’s who came before?

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t about shamrocks and leprechauns. Its about Irish pride. Its about saying, “I’m as good as anyone.” It can even say, “I’m here – deal with it.” St. Patrick’s Day is American, not Irish, because America is where the Irish had to speak up for themselves.

Cinco de Mayo is an American holiday. It is not widely celebrated in Mexico. Just as St. Patrick’s Day is Irish Pride Day, Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Pride Day.

It is a message I got across most years, but no one would have listened if I had not first captured their emotions with the story of a politically neutral and sympathetic people with whom both Anglo and Mexican students could identify.

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