74: The Pilgrim’s Wife

74: The Pilgrim’s Wife

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Pilgrim’s Wife

The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.

~President Lyndon B. Johnson

It was only the third-grade Thanksgiving play but it was my first one and I was excited. I had my heart set on the main role — the pilgrim’s wife.

The only drawback was that I had recently arrived in America from Czechoslovakia and my English was not that great. But since no one else appeared to be auditioning for the role, I was hopeful.

The day of the tryouts, I had butterflies in my stomach. I so wanted this! As others tried out for various roles and read the script in front of the room I mouthed the lines along with them.

Rudy was cast as the lead male pilgrim. When Mrs. Rosen asked who was interested in the role of the pilgrim’s wife, my hand shot up. Two seconds later, Colleen Nelson raised hers. Had I known Colleen would audition I never would have bothered.

Colleen was a ginger-haired beauty with piercing green eyes and creamy skin, with just the right number of tiny freckles dotting her perfect nose. Even at the tender age of eight, she knew she had power.

I was taller than all the kids in class except for two boys who had been left behind. I had a massive head of dark-brown hair with a mind of its own. My skin was so pale, I thought I looked like a ghost.

Colleen read the lines from the script with ease. When she was done, she gave the class and the teacher a dazzling smile and sat down.

How could I compete with that? I walked nervously to the front of the room and stood next to Rudy. He read his lines, which gave me my cues. Then it was as if I were transformed. My nervousness disappeared. I BECAME the pilgrim’s wife. I felt it. I knew I was good! I didn’t need a script. I knew the part by heart.

But my accent was so severe. When I sat down, it was with a heavy heart. I wondered if my English was even understood.

The roles were announced the next day. Yolanda and Juan were cast as the Pilgrim couples’ children. Jacob and Dorothy were to play the lead Native Americans. To my surprise, I was cast in the part I longed for — the pilgrim’s wife. Everyone congratulated me, except for Colleen. I heard her voice from across the room: “How could SHE play a pilgrim? Didn’t pilgrims come from England? She can hardly speak English. Besides, actresses are supposed to be beautiful. And she’s not!”

I was noticeably hurt. Other kids tried to console me and voiced their objections but Colleen’s anger had no end. “You’re all sticking up for her because she’s an IMMIGRANT!” She made the word sound so ugly.

I started crying and so did she. The teacher called the class to order.

Mrs. Rosen began: “This is America. That’s what made this country great — immigrants. You may have been born here, or maybe your parents were, but take a look at yourselves. You are all a blend of many nationalities, religions and races.”

We looked around and it was true. We noticed what had never crossed our minds before. There was as diverse a mixture of people in that room as could be. There were Vietnamese, Latinos, Africans, Irish, Italians, Asians and Poles. There were Christians and Jews and Muslims sitting side by side in a classroom and never giving their differences a thought. It was a regular United Nations — which we had taken for granted.

Mrs. Rosen addressed Colleen gently: “Where are you from, Colleen?”

“I was born right here in Queens, New York,” she answered smugly.

“And your parents?” Mrs. Rosen continued.

Colleen wavered: “I think they’re from Brooklyn.”

“Well, before Brooklyn I know your parents came from Ireland. They were Irish immigrants.”

“But… but,” Colleen stammered.

Juan spoke up. “I’m from Mexico. But I am an American.”

The teacher went on, “We are all Americans now. But most of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were immigrants. It’s the diversity that made this country so unique, so exceptional. Why do you think America attracts people from all over the world? It’s because America is a special place where all men are created equal.”

The lunch bell rang and the class was dismissed. As Colleen headed for the door, Mrs. Rosen put a hand on her shoulder.

“May I have a word with you, Colleen?”

I left, disappearing into the girls’ room to wipe my face and collect myself. Then I went to the lunchroom and sat away from the crowd, opening my lunch. But I was not very hungry.

A few minutes later, Colleen entered the room. I opened a book and pretended to read, not wanting to face her. But she headed in my direction.

“Can I sit here?” she began cautiously.

“Sure,” I shrugged, still staring down at my book. She sat opposite me.

“Eva, I don’t know where to start.” She started tearing up. And so did I.

“I don’t know why I said those hurtful things. I guess I was jealous because you did the part so well by heart and I had the script in front of me and I still messed up.

“And Mrs. Rosen’s explanation about immigrants is so true. Most of us are immigrants or our ancestors were, unless we are Native Americans. And it was the immigrants who helped make America what it is today.”

She continued, as both our tears started flowing freely: “And you ARE beautiful. I love your naturally curly hair and you have skin like porcelain. You don’t have these stupid freckles like I have.”

We both leaned over the table and hugged. The rest of the kids in the lunchroom were looking at us with wonder and amusement. But we didn’t care.

The Thanksgiving play took place in the school auditorium and all the classes and parents attended. I played the pilgrim’s wife and the play was a big hit.

Colleen was an extra, playing a Native American girl. But what I loved the best was that at the end of the show, Colleen led the entire cast of twenty onto the stage, holding hands.

Then she stepped out of the line and, like an angel, sang, “God Bless America.” It didn’t matter that the song was written well after that original Thanksgiving took place. What mattered was that the spirit of America was within all our hearts that day.

Colleen and I — the child of immigrants and an immigrant — are still friends today. And America is still the greatest country in the world, made up of people of all religions, nationalities and races, from all over the globe.

~Eva Carter

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