Carving a Soap Alamo Taught Me Nothing and Everything

When I was in the fourth grade, everyone in my class carved replicas of the Alamo out of Ivory soap. When I share this with non-Texans, they tend to snicker. I mean, sure, why wouldn’t they? Children, knives, AND the Alamo… is there a more Texas school project imaginable?

Well… maybe that time I welded a barbecue pit out of a 50 gallon drum in 9th grade.

Of course, making a barbecue pit did theoretically teach me some tradable skills -- welding; cutting metal; following plans. Carving the soap Alamo? Less tangible.

Then again, I have never welded anything else in my life. Heck, I don’t even like to barbecue. But that soap project, it stuck with me. It gave me a frame. It told me a story about my culture and history… not about the Alamo, per se’, but about the mythos of it, about its role as a symbol in my community’s collective sense of self.

Kill Your Heroes

Over the years, I pushed and pulled against that frame. As a child, I loved the myth. As I aged, I saw the story in more and more nuanced ways. I learned to place it in context of race and culture. In college, when I was actively killing my heroes, I reveled in destroying the myth. I, too, snickered at it all.

I may be younger than that now (to quote Dylan), but mellowing with age hasn’t made reconciling with the myth any easier. If anything, in the Era of Privilege, the idea of carving a soap Alamo is even more troubling -- almost unimaginable. Whose story are we omitting? How common is that culture we’re building? At this point, where does a soap Alamo -- let alone the actual Alamo -- fit?

Social Progress and Hard Conversations

I’m not the only one who’s spent the last several decades staring down traditions and common bonds. It seems at times that the only thing we the people have in common is the belief that we have nothing in common. We’re fractured -- fractious at times -- and in deep, very troubling ways.

Schools were once a lynchpin in crafting common experiences; it’s ultimately why soap Alamos and handprint turkeys are important. I learned nothing about Texas history in general or the Alamo specifically from the project. But it stuck with me. It informed my evolving sense of self. It was a frame against which I had to measure moral and ethical choices. What did it mean to be a Texan? How do you celebrate your heritage without whitewashing history?

The Place to Learn

Schools are the very places these questions should happen, but, sadly, we’ve left very little room for them. Over the last few years, we've made the purpose of schools all about measured achievement in specific academics (i.e., science, not art; non-fiction, not literature).

In part, the shift reflects our obsession with getting our money’s worth from schools. Achievement scores in easily quantifiable areas -- like algebra -- are great metrics. You either know the Pythagorean theorem or you don’t. Writing a beautiful poem? Isn’t that in the eye of the beholder?

Along the same lines, we made schools into career preparation factories -- meaning important, high-paying technical careers. We tend to imagine the future as an even more tech-rich version of today (because we usually imagine the future as being like a supercharged version of now.) Computers and programming dominate our imagination; therefore, kids must be trained in technical subjects.

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Not Less but More

To be clear, I would never argue against teaching math or science or deny the role schools must play in preparing students for college and career success. I firmly believe that education is the cornerstone of our democratic system. It prepares people to engage in civic life. It gives all people, regardless of race or income, a fairer chance in life. It represents our hope for the future and our better natures.

And while it too rarely achieves these outcomes -- especially for people of color -- all the more reason to support, grow, and engage with education. Make it better.

And we make it better by bringing back the soap Alamo… well, not the soap Alamo, per se’, but the things represented by it. The common experiences that bind people together.

Writing New Narratives

We need to confront our past in order to form a bedrock upon which to build our brighter future.

In the past, it was simpler to decide on these common experiences because we listened to fewer types of people. Now we’re trying to listen to more people (or at least some of us are trying), trying to be sensitive to our built in biases (our privilege, in the parlance of now).

All this soul searching makes building shared traditions that much harder; but it  also makes them all the more vital. The more we understand our differences, the more we need some threads of sameness. We need to be inclusive in our traditions. But we need traditions. And we need to honor them. And we need to teach them.

We don’t have to carve Alamos or make pilgrim hats, but we need to do things that give us frames, common memories, shared experiences. We need to do things that force us to talk and work through differences. We need to confront our past in order to form a bedrock upon which to build our brighter future.

And if that means spending a few hours of class time carving a tiny bald eagle out of soap, I say bring on the Ivory.