It was 400 years ago this week that the Pilgrims wore out their welcome in tolerant Leyden, Holland and started their journey to what was supposed to be Virginia, with stops in Southampton and Plymouth to pick up more Pilgrims and “Strangers” to help pay the expenses. It was far from a safe bet they would make it to North American land. In fact, half didn’t. In August 1620, this Mayflower, the size of a two-bedroom apartment with no windows or bathrooms, departed carrying goats, sheep, dogs, chickens and 102 passengers, but 49 died of disease on board as they waited at anchor for Cape Cod temperatures to warm. They had given up trying to get further down the coast.

John Grech

John Grech

Since their charter from the king was for Virginia, they had to improvise, to make their settlement “legitimate.” Monarchies were not accustomed to having their charters jerry rigged to suit little people’s needs, especially separatists’ trying to ditch their Anglican Church which Pilgrims thought hopelessly corrupt. So they promised to establish a “civil body politick” under elected leaders, equal laws and loyalty to the king. This Mayflower Compact cleverly established the idea of self-rule, democracy and just a bit of independence.

Ten years later the voyage to today’s Boston on the Arbela and ten other vessels, must have been similarly arduous, this time for non-Separatist Puritans. Departure from Southampton featured a speech from the bigwig preacher of the day, John Cotton, who told them they were “God’s chosen people,” men of destiny, like the ancient Israelites leaving Egypt with a right to settle the new land no matter who might already be there. “There is room enough,” he said. And he quoted Luke’s gospel, “To whom much is given, of him God will require the more.” 

Here begins the legacy of American exceptionalism, an idea governor John Winthrop would expand in his speech as they approached Massachusetts Bay. “We must delight in each other; make each other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together…” And the colony should be “as a city upon a hill.” 

That metaphor has been on my mind a lot as we teachers prepare for uncharted waters of our own. A city on a hill looks down on others, feels it must be better than others. But millions look up at the hill too, maybe looking for inspiration, direction or exemplary leadership. Maybe they gloat when its inhabitants fail or fall short of their stated ideals. 

So with the pressure to succeed, Winthrop had to do whatever it took to assure unity, even exiling Anne Hutchinson, for her heretical belief that people could actually know God’s will, and Roger Williams for his treasonous belief in separating church and state.  But it’s hard to know how to handle these problems when hostile natives and freezing winters are just around the corner.

Now the world watches our nation struggle with this COVID virus like no other country, no matter its level of development. As we fail to slow the spread of COVID, I’m not the only teacher looking ahead to possibly a year of distance learning as if I’m staring ahead at a watery abyss. Scary and uncharted, our community is watching. School communities are forming compacts of our own, with rules and standards amid earnest commitment to our students. 

We must be strong and decisive (and kinder than Winthrop) amid a kind of school year that gives us no precedent. We really do have to “labor and suffer” together and help each other get through this. There is a very good chance that when it is all said and done, we will be better off for it, but I can’t imagine it feeling that way in the meantime. Some students will do better with more self-directed learning and less time sitting with peers in a classroom, but most won’t, despite our best efforts. Our need for unity, patience, and charity with each other is like never before. Now, neither the city-on-a-hill metaphor nor American exceptionalism feels so lofty. 

Still, during my occasional throes of anxiety, I remind myself that my two ancestors on that Mayflower had it far worse than I do now. One of them, old Stephen Hopkins, a “stranger” earlier survived a shipwreck on his way to Jamestown, and apparently inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He and his wife Elizabeth, who gave birth on the Mayflower, both lived to a ripe old age in Plymouth as the owners of the town’s tavern. (Their serving ale on Sunday surely irked their religiously devout shipmates). In these COVID times, with inspiration and confidence needed for a teacher starting school, I prefer not to think about the fate of my other ancestor.

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