I had school on Columbus Day - 10 years later

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Why do we even have Columbus Day off? As many historians and comedians have pointed out, people already lived on the continent... Columbus discovered "their backyard." 

I didn't truly ponder the reason until the day I had to go to school on the federal holiday. In October 2003, my English literature professor asked our college freshman class to write a paper on whatever inspired us.

The university decided to hold class, and going to school that Monday was fresh inspiration for me to take pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard.) My teacher enjoyed it and recommended I submit it to the university newspaper the following year.

It's interesting for me to look back on this essay 10 years later, now as I'm a photojournalist and communicate the Air Force's message and share the story of my fellow Airmen.

While debate exists over what Christopher Columbus may or may not have done, I still believe the day serves to highlight the many contributions of Italian-Americans to our nation, including more than 40 Medal of Honor recipients like U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.

But more importantly, the day is not exclusive to just one ethnicity but to the entire nation. In celebrating the Italian-American experience, we celebrate the American story.

"As a native of Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus also inspired generations of Italian immigrants to follow in his footsteps," said President Barack Obama, in the 2012 Columbus Day Presidential Proclamation. "Today, we take time to celebrate the innumerable contributions that generations of Italian Americans have made to our country. Throughout 2013, Italy will also commemorate this rich heritage and the enduring bonds between our countries with the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, which Americans will join in celebrating."

We have school on Columbus Day?!

Did I miss a meeting? Did I not get the memo?

Last time I checked, we were at war with an enemy who despises everything we stand for. And yet we look to our own history and say, "Thanks for discovering America, Mr. Columbus. Now get back to work!?"

Perhaps when I was living overseas a great referendum took place over the value of this federal holiday in the educational system. Maybe I didn't read about it, because it was on page 32 on the newspaper. But this seems like big news. Sadly, everyone else is going about it like... another Monday.

When I asked people around campus why we were here today, they all had three distinct reactions.

The first was "Yeah, I don't get it either." This made me feel a little better since I wasn't the only one who noticed it.

The second was "Why should we have the day off?" This troubled me, but it came mostly from faculty.

And the third response, "...who's Columbo?" That troubled me even more than the second response. Yet ignorance of the man or the holiday is no excuse for not observing it in the first place.

Back in Germany, my mother and sister were making use of the three-day weekend by traveling to Spain. I do find it ironic that they marked the (then) 511th anniversary of the voyage by visiting the country he left. But the point remains: they had the day off.

They even asked me if I would like a celebratory souvenir for the Columbus journey. And when I told them I had school on Monday, they told me that they would enjoy the holiday for me. I'm sure whoever said that life in college was liberating because you get away from your family didn't think about that last exchange.

As you can probably tell, this holiday does have history with me. I remember how we used to act out the story in grade school. We used to portray Columbus, the Queen of Spain, the royal court, the crew, the Indians and the three ships.

I used to play the Queen's advisor, the one whose only line was "He's not gonna make it!" It was a short role, but it was better than playing the Santa Maria.

I even laughed when comedian Chris Rock remarked how no one was asking you to put little ships in your front yard-- all we're asking you to do is to not work. Even up to my senior year in high school, we never had school on the second Monday of October.

Having Italian ancestry, I do like the idea that we made Columbus Day an Italian-American Holiday in which we mark their contributions to American society.

Among these gifts are Fettuccini Alfredo, wine-in-a-box, "loving your mama" and the Godfather trilogy. But what is greater than the discovery and naming of this entire hemisphere?

Perhaps there was a reason for it. Maybe the people who decided we would have school today were trying to send a message. Maybe a day off from work has made us forget about the greatness of what Columbus did.

Maybe they were trying to downplay Columbus' voyage and that there were more important holidays to be declared federal. Or maybe they were all godless, decadent commies trying to tear down our nation's greatness.

While I wasn't too sure about the last question, I actually wondered what if Columbus was alive today and what he would think about his own accomplishment and what came of it?

This was the man who defied all known conceptions of the shape of the Earth.

This was the man who sailed in three ships, battling starvation and death for months on the sea.

This was the man who discovered a new land-- the country we live in today - and then returned home with a magnificent story that would bring countless explorers later to these shores.

This was the man whose achievement our Congress declared a Federal Holiday, an event that took place three centuries before the Revolutionary War.

If anything, this man was an inspiration to all adventurers for daring such a brave quest in the face of great odds.

And then I would ask him the inevitable question: was it all worth it?

Well, if I were him, I probably would have turned the ships around if I knew they were going to hold school on Columbus Day.