by Malinda Fillingim
Although I was the teacher, I was the one who had a lesson to learn.
As the fourth grade teacher at Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School in Hollister, I had an open door policy when it came to parents and tribal leaders who wanted to observe or volunteer in my classroom. Tribal leaders and their relatives had visited us and taught us pottery, origami, beading, and traditional dance steps. Such presentations helped me teach relative and integrative lessons about math, science, patterns, and geometry. With each visitor, my students not only gained valuable core lessons, but a sense of heritage pride and identity.
It was the spring of 2001 and my students were busy measuring the circumference of apples, peeling them, slicing them into rings, and then hanging them up to dry. We were estimating which size of apple rings would dry fastest and calculating whether placing the apples near the window would speed up the drying process. We were learning how to preserve food as so many of their ancestors, and mine, had done. It was an ordinary day in an extraordinary classroom when I heard a soft knock on the door.
The gentleman who came to my door that spring did so humbly, apologizing for interrupting the apple peeling, and explained he had a turkey he wanted to show my class. My mind conjured up a frozen turkey wrapped in plastic paper, without legs, feathers, or anything that resembled a real live turkey. I wasn’t sure why he wanted my students to see a frozen turkey, but my students voiced a great deal of respect for this elderly man, so I obliged and we went to the back of his pickup truck to see this turkey.
The only piece of plastic I saw on his truck was the big tarp the dead wild red-bearded turkey was resting upon, feet up and feathers attached.
I tried not to act surprised, but in fact I was. I had eaten hundreds of turkeys n my life, but the only wild ones I had ever seen were crossing the dirt roads I used to drive on when playing hooky from high school. And they were alive, gobbling loudly.
The elder talked kindly to my students who had now encircled the pickup, some sitting on the sides or standing on the tires. They were not fazed by the dead turkey.
“I killed him with the bow my father used and my grandfather made. It has served us well.”
He did not speak in vanity or with pride, but gently and with respect for the men before him who had provided food for their families. The children shook their heads in unison with him, united by something that could not be seen.
He continued to speak about how to track a turkey, how baiting a turkey was cruel, not honoring the turkey’s life. He told of how the turkey had given his life so others could live, how nature gave to us life and we are to give life back by respecting nature, living in unison with it, not in dominance. He spoke of the turkey as a friend, a companion who had given up his life so he, the man, could live.
I listened, quietly trying to squelch my desire to make my students estimate the weight of the turkey, the number of feathers, and how many people it would feed. I wanted facts, outcomes, lesson plans, and evidence of learning. Slowly, I realized that learning about respecting animals, appreciating one’s history, and embracing nature with kindness was one of the best lessons my students could ever learn. My heart took over my calculating and obsessive mind, and I listened, really listened, to this man of wisdom as he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the turkey, for life.
His prayer went something like this:
For the life of this turkey we give thanks. For the feathers that will soften our fall we are thankful. For the meat that will fill our stomachs we say thanks. May our tracks leave nothing but peace behind us and may our lives offer nothing but gratitude before us.
My students were quieter than they had ever been under that blue sky as he ended his prayer. He took feathers off the turkey and gave each student and me one feather. He explained that alone one feather could not keep us warm or comfort us as we fell, but put together, we could give to one another comfort and warmth. “We are better together than apart. Remember that.”
Each student thanked him and we returned to our room, each holding a feather. I never learned that man’s name, never saw him again. But I knew him. He was a man of thanksgiving and each Thanksgiving as I thaw out my frozen turkey, I remember him with gratitude.
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her step-father’s hometown, Walnut Cove, NC when she was in eighth grade. Curious by nature, Malinda asked Mama Dunlap so many questions about her cooking that she finally gave up some of the old recipes she carried in her head. Malinda is an ESL teacher at Cape Fear Community College and lives in Leland with her husband.