One of the reasons I moved to Massachusetts years ago–has it really been four decades now?–was because my mom instilled a love of American history in me, and New England’s got history like Heinz has pickles. “History so thick you can hit it with a stick!” is the slogan I keep offering to the state Department of Tourism–gratis!–but they never take me up on it.
But I’m not going to let bureaucratic indifference keep me from teaching my kids–Scooter who’s 12, and Skipper, two years younger–about the many important historical events that happened right where we live as we near the Sestercentennial of the American Revolution, including my favorite; the Boston Tea Party.
“Why do you like the Tea Party so much, dad?” Skipper asks.
“Because it has something for everybody,” I say as I look for a parking space along Fort Point Channel, where I’m taking the kids on a Saturday excursion to a new museum dedicated to the Tea Party as the 242nd anniversary of the date approaches. “For conservatives, it’s an anti-tax feast day.”
“Ms. Mangel-Wurzel says the Tea Party is bad,” Scooter says.
“Is she the one who had the ‘Ready for Hillary!’ bumper sticker on her Prius–two years ago?”
“Yes,” Scooter says, and not too enthusiastically. The young woman in question is what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. referred to as a harpy of the shore in his poem “Old Ironsides.” Sample question from her sixth-grade earth sciences unit: “The year is 2525, the year that pop apocalypse duo Zager and Evans predicted the world would end. Your family has died from: (a) high temperatures caused by global warming, (b) rising tides caused by global warming, (c) killer bees, or (d) George W. Bush. Show your work.”
“And what’s my paraphrase of what Santayana said about drips like her?” I ask them.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to screw up the future,” they both reply in a drone-like tone of voice.
Santayana: “That’s NOT what I said!”
“Precisely,” I say. “I was into The Tea Party before there was a ‘Tea Party’–as anybody who read my ground-breaking 1993 white paper on the subject would know. It was more about government favors to big business–The East India Tea Company–than it was about taxes, just like we have bank bailouts and tax breaks for stadiums for overpaid pro athletes today!”
I can tell from the subdued chatter from the back seat that for some reason they’ve lost interest, so I shift into Hyperspace, as we Star Wars parents like to call the parallel state of existence we enter when we teach our children forbidden truths.
“The Tea Party is also about street theatre,” I say.
“Yay! We can destroy other people’s stuff!”
“You mean like the puppet shows that dweeb Drew Conley puts on in his front yard in the summer?” Scooter asks. He has a low opinion of any boy his age who is not an accomplished athlete in one of the four major sports groups.
“Not exactly. Street theatre means you go out into the world as a performer, and not just as a somebody going about their daily routine.”
“Did they get dressed up?” Skipper asks.
“They sure did, they dressed up as Indians, and . . .”
“Ms. Mangel-Wurzel says you have to say ‘Cowboys and Native Americans.’”
It’s time to level with them. I pull up to the ticket booth at a parking lot and turn around to face them as we wait to enter. “Scooter, how smart do you have to be to teach sixth grade?” I ask rhetorically.
“As smart as a seventh grader,” he replies in a monotone. We’ve been through this before.
“Exactly. If Ms. Mangel-Wurzel was really smart she’d be an investment banker, making a lot more money than Daddy–okay?”
The guy in the booth tells me it’s $20 to park–a bargain, comparatively speaking, for downtown Boston, because we’re in the rapidly-developing neighborhood known as South Boston, The Seaport District or The Innovation District, depending on what phase of the moon we’re in. Once they decide what to call it rates will be much higher. I hand the man a bill and we drive off to find a space.
Tea Party Museum, but not that Tea Party.
We get out of the car and I continue my pedagogical enrichment. “They weren’t just any costumes either,” I say. “The guys who threw the Tea Party got dressed up in culturally offensive garb so they could pin the blame on a powerless minority. It’s a tradition that’s been kept alive by successive generations of Bostonians–like Charles Stuart.”
“Who’s Charles Stuart?” Skip asks.
“He the daddy in the birthing class right before me and mom at Brigham & Women’s Hospital when she was pregnant with Scooter. He shot his wife and blamed it on an imaginary black man.”
I get the sense that they’re impressed with the elegance of this solution; if you do something really bad, pin it on somebody else!
“It wasn’t really a tea party, was it dad?” Scoots asks.
“No, that’s another part of the Tea Party that’s interesting–the name,” I say. “Ironic understatement–the men dumped big wooden boxes of tea in the ocean, but they called it a ‘tea party.” How many other nations on earth have a major historical event with a figurative nickname? Not many, I’ll bet.”
We’re almost to the museum, and the kids have a spring in their step at the prospect of history brought alive by underemployed actors and actresses in period costumes, tacky souvenirs and a high salt-high fat lunch.
We buy our tickets–$25 bucks for me, $15 each for the kids–and as my wallet gets lighter my sense of responsibility to the boys begins to weigh more heavily on me. “I want you guys to pay attention, this experience isn’t cheap!” I say sternly, and as we make our way through the exhibits, I’m pleased–and quietly proud–to see that my children are taking history seriously.
“Dad, it says the men met at the Green Dragon Tavern beforehand to plan the Tea Party,” Skipper says.
“That’s right,” I say. “You’ll find as you grow older that when men are on the verge of doing great and serious things, it helps if they drink a lot of beer first.” He nods quietly, almost reverently.
Plato puts on puppet shows too!
“Look at this!” Scooter yells from a few stops up in the exhibit hall. He’s examining the text next to the pictures of the men throwing tea overboard. “They opened up the boxes with hatchets to make sure the tea spoiled!” he says, impressed with the attention to detail that went into our nation’s most famous act of vandalism.
“There’s a lesson for you in all of this,” I say to him, as I tousle Skipper’s hair.
“What’s that?” Scooter asks.
I crouch down so I can look them both in the eyes. What I’m about to say is important, and I want to make sure they “get it.” “The thing I want you kids to learn,” I say, “is that if you damage somebody’s property, you can usually get away with it if you do it for a political reason.”
“Like what?” Skip asks.
“Well, the men who ruined the tea were fighting for lower taxes, and against government monopolies–so they’re heroes today. Otherwise they’d just be criminals.”
I can tell from the looks of consternation on their faces that they haven’t quite grasped the concept.
“Did you ever damage somebody’s property dad?” Skipper asks.
“Sure I did. Me and a kid . . .”
“Mom says you’re supposed to say ‘Another boy and I,’” Skip says. He’s the rule-bound, studious one of the two.
“I wish mom would read page 456 of the 1937 edition of The American Language by H.L. Mencken,” I say.
“What’s on that page?” Scooter asks. He’s hoping to get some relief from the hidebound rules of grammar that are enforced with such strictness around our house.
“That it’s perfectly okay to say ‘Me and you should go fishing,’ for example, but you can’t say ‘you and me should go fishing.’ It’s just a question of what usage permits, not some Platonian rule revealed only to English teachers.”
“Cool!” Scoots yells.
Skipper isn’t fazed; he’s going to stick to what mom says because he knows which side his cracker is peanut buttered on. “You damaged somebody’s property?” he asks, incredulous.
“Does this count towards our final grade?”
“Sure. Wade and I”–I used the first person nominative just to restore his sense of a harmonious universe–“snuck into our Current Events teacher’s back yard and set fire to his woodpile.”
“Why’d you do that?” Skip asks.
I steal a glance at my budding outlaw Scooter, and give him just a hint of a smile. “Because it was there, silly!” we scream together at his little brother.
“Oh,” Skipper says with an embarrassed tone, as if he’s missed a question on the times twelve multiplication tables. “So that was . . . okay?”
I can see I’ve fallen short of my duties as a father. “Skip–of course it was wrong. It’s always wrong to destroy somebody else’s property.”
“Oh,” he says.
“Unless you can come up with some high-minded phony-baloney excuse, like the guys in the Tea Party did.”
He’s starting to get it, but he’s not quite there . . . yet.
“Did–you have an excuse?”
“Of course not–because we didn’t get caught,” I say. “If my Current Events teacher had found out who did it, we would have said it was because he stifled our discussion of the Vietnam War–or something–in class. THEN it would have been protected by The First Amendment.”
I can tell from the looks of awe on their faces that they’ve grasped the significance of freedom of speech, the cornerstone of our liberty that is subject to heavy regulation–even fines–by the federal government when used in a political campaign. Not sure that’s how it was supposed to work out, but there it is.
Teach your children well: Vandalism is fun!
“Is that why Ms. Mangel-Wurzel hates the Tea Party so much?” Scooter asks.
“No, I think she has a perfectly legitimate reason to dislike them,” I say.
“What’s that?” Skipper asks.
“No,” Skipper says.
“Well, that’s the position she finds herself in,” I said with a tinge of sympathy.
“Are YOU a member of the Tea Party?” Scooter asks, and I realize my scrupulously dispassionate pox-on-both-your-houses review of the relative merits of the Tea Party and its detractors may have left the kids . . . confused as to where I stand.
“Absolutely not,” I say.
“How come?” Skipper asks.
“I’m a coffee man myself.”
Available in print and Kindle formats from Humor Outcasts Press as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!”