Penkava: In 1493, Columbus stole all he could see

Michael Penkava
Michael Penkava

What a difference a year makes. In 1492, you’re a hero. In 1493, you’re a scoundrel. How did this all happen?

Years ago, my third-graders and I tackled this question. It was a lesson they’d never forget. Please, come on in, take a seat in my class and go on this journey with us.

The lesson really began with a simple challenge: Think of a real hero from long ago. Someone who did something amazing. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you who it is. Try to guess whom I am thinking about.

The next day, the kids couldn’t wait to share their guesses. George Washington. Harriet Tubman. Martin Luther King Jr. Spider-Man. Wonder Woman. A handful of students guessed Christopher Columbus. And they were correct.

I invited the class to sit on the floor in front of me as I sat in an old stuffed rocker that had made the leap from my living room to higher education.

There I began to read a picture book about the traditional story of Columbus as he intrepidly sailed into the unknown. Oh, how brave he was!

And, oh, how fortunate the Native Americans were to finally be discovered! A wonderful New World, thanks to Columbus!

We were so impressed that we wrote about heroic Columbus. We searched for words to describe him – strong, fearless, courageous, awesome.

Then we drew pictures of him in all of his glory.

I sent the kids home with their writings and their pictures and told them their assignment was to tell their parents how cool Columbus was. But they had no idea what was waiting for them the next day.

That morning, I told them that I had another book to read about Columbus. The book was titled “Encounter” by Jane Yolen. It was about Columbus, but it was not the Columbus the children expected.

This book was a richly illustrated account of Columbus, but from the Native Americans’ point of view. The main character was a little boy from the Taino tribe who lived on San Salvador when he and his people welcomed Columbus and his men.

It told of what happened to the Indians – how they lost their culture and their language and their land. It ends with the boy, now an old man, gazing out at the ocean that had brought Columbus and destruction to his people.

“What do you think about Columbus now?” I asked when we finished the book.

My question was met with quizzical stares.

“Are you a little confused?” I asked. Little heads silently nodded.

We talked about what we had learned – how a hero to one person could be a villain to another. It depended upon our point of view. It depended upon whom we were listening to.

And it depended upon how deeply we looked for the truth.

The lesson that day was not really about Columbus or what he did or didn’t do. It was about becoming critical thinkers. It was about being curious and skeptical at the same time. It was about having an open mind, but being careful about what you let into it.

In 1492, Columbus discovered the New World.

Maybe it’s time we discovered Columbus.

• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. When the kids asked him how he felt about Columbus, he quoted Mark Twain: “It was wonderful that he found America, but it would have even been more wonderful if he missed it.” He can be reached at

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