School Elections Matter, Too

Bookmark and Share

The moonless night trembled with eerie silence. Still, the veteran warriors waited with resigned anticipation. The now 54-day old siege had worn upon them. Yet, they stood, along with their courageous emperor, willing to confront their ultimate fate.

That final assault began shortly after midnight on Tuesday, the 29th of May, 1453. It would prove to be the last day of an Empire that had existed – in one form or another – for more than 20 centuries. Wave after wave of Ottoman attackers charged with relentless regularity. The 150,000 invaders far outnumbered the 7,000 war-weary defenders of Constantinople – the last capital of the Roman Empire.

Amid the battles cries and the shouts, the screams and the barking of orders, the first wave of attackers were massacred by the defenders. Next came a round of fresh invaders, more organized than the first. They ferociously fought, desperately trying to break through the compact ranks of the tough professionals defending the city. The attackers soon found themselves caught in the crossfire of close quarters, and the Emperor himself led the counter-assault. This second wave, too, failed.

But now, with ruthless guile, the Ottoman Sultan released his most prized troops. Disciplined and superbly trained, these men proved equal match to the guardians of Constantinople. As the night wore on, the persistent battle never broke – and neither did the will of the defenders.

Until, just before sunrise, an errant shot hit the Emperor’s leading general. Like the mercenaries he led, he hailed from the city of Genoa. Mortally wounded, his comrades removed him from the front lines, despite the pleas of the Emperor not to break ranks. Detecting this sudden shift in defense, the Ottomans concentrated their attack on the weakened position. Thousands rushed to the area and, eventually, into the city itself.

Sensing the end – and in true Hollywood style – Constantine XI – the Emperor of Byzantium and the last Roman Emperor – rips off his Imperial insignia. Knowingly – and silently, he glances at his three closest lieutenants. He raises his sword toward the advancing invaders. The three raise theirs in tandem. With a final cry of angry defiance, Constantine and his lieutenants make one last charge through the morning mists and into the heart of the enemy. They are never seen again.

Not only was Constantine lost to history, but the long Greek and Roman city of Constantinople, whose residents renamed from its original “Byzantium,” lost its historic name to the now ruling Turks in 1930. Today’s maps refer to it as “Istanbul.”

What does this history lesson have to do with school elections?

Allow me to offer another example.

Are the surviving pre-colonial tribes of the Greater Western New York Region collectively known as “Iroquois” (whose modern pronunciation rhymes with “boy” but whose original French pronunciation rhymes with “Ottawa”)? Or are they known as “Haudenosaunee” (“People of the Longhouse”), a term which first appeared in Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1851 book The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois? Or are they known as “Ongweh’onweh” (“real human beings”), as the US National Park Service said they refer to themselves as in its March 2021 “Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study.”

Last week I spoke with local historians and educators from our portion of the Greater Western New York Region. They met together to promote the very laudable goal of incorporating the voluminous research of these historians into the New York State curriculum rubric. Indeed, I’m tailoring some of my own local history and science research for this purpose.

I found a couple exchanges, however, a bit disconcerting. In one, a member of BOCES that caters to school districts on the west side of Rochester lamented that students in those rural districts had trouble finding local examples of redlining.

For those of you not familiar, “redlining” is a term associated with racism, although it is often confused with a method of financial analysis lending institutions use to reduce loan risks. In the example here, however, it is clearly meant to isolate and identify historic examples of outright discrimination through the use of deeds to exclude the sale of properties to specific ethnic and racial groups.

It turns out, the farther you get from centralized populations, the more difficult it is to find examples of this. Yet, the New York State curriculum appears to emphasize this exercise everywhere, even in rural areas where other issues may have more historical significance.

Then there was the example of “the ‘I’ word.” Apparently, according to one city school district educator, one is prohibited to refer to those pre-Colonial tribes as “Iroquois” because it was an allegedly derogatory termed coined by the French based on what their Indian allies (who were at war with the Iroquois) called their enemy.

In fact, unlike the name “Constantinople,” there is no consensus as to the exact etymology of the term “Iroquois.” Ironically, the early French Jesuits who originated the name did not do so for a derogatory reason. Ironically, it was based on a word spelled “Hero” and it merely referred to the phrase “I have said,” which the Iroquois supposed ended their statements with. Much later (as early as 1883), etymologists disagreed with this interpretation. Suggested original meanings include “man” or “snake,” but there is not direct evidence of this.

In fact, Volume 15 of the Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians (1978) concludes of the term “Iroquois”: “No such form is attested in any Indian language as a name for any Iroquoian group, and the ultimate origin and meaning of the name are unknown.”

And therein lies the real problem with the term. It refers primarily to a common language form among all pre-Colonial peoples. As a result, tribes outside the Five (or Six) Nations are also categorized as Iroquoian even though they were not part of the Iroquois Confederacy and often became genocidal victims of that alliance (both before and during the Colonial Era).

Forget about the sorrowfully misinformed teacher. She was only parroting what the New York State curriculum requires. Is the next “I” word to be sent down the memory hole “Istanbul”? After all, unlike the word “Iroquois,” stripping the name “Constantinople” represents a blatant case of cultural violation.

And that’s why school elections matter. We can’t expect teachers alone to stand up and fight for truth in the State curriculum. They need to be supported by and sometimes follow the lead of the School Board.

School elections often focus on the current budget. This year may be different. This year may focus on future budgets. There seems to be an inordinate interest in running for the school board this year. In years past, it was difficult to find candidates. (Many years ago, I was asked to run. I declined.) This year folks appear to be more aware of the consequences of Albany’s “one size fits all” laws and how it will cost Greater Western New Yorkers, particularly those with large rural school districts.

Earlier this year, the entire roster of Livingston County School Districts signed and sent a letter to the Governor (with a supporting resolution from the Livingston County Legislature) asking that certain matters be decided at the local level. While this letter focused on health policies, when I spoke to the Superintendent of Livonia who helped spearhead this idea, he said there’s another issue that’s about to come up. The requirement to convert to an all-electric bus fleet is critically expensive and impractical for rural districts.

In talking with residents throughout the 17-County Greater Western New York Region, it’s clear that some districts might be able to meet this all-electric standard while others might not. It’s equally clear that the era of the quiet, behind the scenes, traditional school board persona is over. Citizens want their school boards to stand up for their communities.

But it’s not that easy. The State, through the way it distributes aid, can extort school districts in ways that make school boards impotent.

Unless, like they did in Livingston County, school districts form alliances with themselves and with their local elected officials to make concise – and precise – statements challenging Albany.

School boards must take the lead on this.

And that’s why school elections matter, too.

Speak Your Mind