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Perspective: Parris South teacher dares to venture off beaten track

R. Kelly Jordan
Staff Writer

Tradition is important in the South – this is part of the country where “how Grandpa did it,” and his Daddy, and his Daddy’s Daddy did things has deep meaning, and new things that “ain’t from ‘round here” can be eyed with suspicion.
And sometimes derision – sometimes for good reason; you don’t fix what ain’t broke.
But something new might be a great gift. It can offer an appreciation for things overlooked, or provide a new, interesting and exciting look on something we’ve taken for granted. Outside perspectives can help us realize that people are people, and though others may look a little different or sound a little different, we all have the same hopes, dreams, and experiences when it balances out.
On Friday, Nov. 2 – and the date is important – a new teacher at Parris South Elementary School brought an experience to the entire fifth grade that surely is one that is “not from ‘round here.”
But what the kids learned about really is little different from a very dear tradition in the South, and celebrated in west Tennessee every single year.

Teacher Hannah Hawkins appraises students’ Dia De los Muertos ofrenda, which is Spanish for “Day of the Dead” offering.

As a class project, Hannah Hawkins, a new fifth grade teacher at Parris South, introduced the entire grade to a Mexican festival called “Dia de los Muertos,” which means “Day of the Dead.”
Before being taken aback, let’s be very clear on what Dia de los Muertos is not – it is not “Mexican Halloween.”
Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life, and a way for Mexico and most Central and South American cultures to honor and show respect for loved ones they’ve lost.
It is a three day celebration beginning on Oct. 31, lasting through Nov. 2, and is an explosion of color, music, dancing, intoxicating fragrances, flowers, candles and incense, photos of lost loved ones, and food. Mountains and mountains of food.
There are parades and bands playing traditional music, games, and events held just for children, and they celebrate wearing costumes decorated with skeletons and skulls and other signs of “death” – and they gather to pray for the souls of the lost, tell stories of the loved ones they miss, and teach the younger generation of their family members now gone.

A fifth grader at Parris South Elementary School wears a traditional Dia De los Muertos costume.

Some students brought traditional Spanish festival foods including sopapillas and sugar skull cookies.

So, how does that in any way resemble any possible tradition held dear here in the South, that we celebrate in Hardin County every year? How about Decoration Day?
Of course, Miss Betty June and Granny don’t dress up in skeleton costumes on Decoration Day – nor do they dance and sing in Spanish – but when it’s all boiled down to the basics, both events are celebrations of life and love, and to honor and respect those we’ve lost to death.
Both celebrations involve family coming together to share important memories, funny stories, lots of flowers and music, and food. Mountains of food – our favorites and some of the favorites of the departed.
Both celebrations are a way to grieve those we’ve lost – but in a joyous, happy way, to remember and cherish those lives, rather than live our lives in mourning.
And that is what Hawkins wanted to teach her students – that we may do it a little differently from culture to culture, but ultimately we are really the same.
“I first heard about Dia de los Muertos at the last school I taught at,” said Hawkins, who came to Savannah just this year from Mary C. Williams Elementary in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she taught third grade.
“My last school had a high Hispanic population, and that’s where I learned of it – I had no clue before,” she said, adding, “I also knew some of my students have experienced loss like I have, and I wanted them to know they could remember their loved ones in a happy, loving, fun but respectable way.
“I wish someone had explained that to me when I was a young student,” she added.
Hawkins lost her father at a young age, and the experience was hard on her. But, just like Decoration Day, Dia de los Muertos is meant to be a way of celebrating the dead to help build stronger bonds among the living.
The Dia de los Muertos celebration coincides with the three-day religious observance of “Allhallowtide” – All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which is no coincidence considering the heavily Christian population in Latin America.
Beginning on Oct. 31, families build an “ofrenda,” Spanish for “offering,” also called an “altar,” to honor and celebrate their dead.
It should be noted the “altar” in this instance isn’t one of worship, as one may see in a religious rite. In the sense of Dia de los Muertos, the ofrenda is a shrine to pay homage to the dearly departed.
All Saints’ Day, which is Nov. 1, is called “Dia de los Inocentes,” or “Day of the Innocents,” or also “Dia de los Angelitos,” meaning “Day of the Little Angels,” which is the day to honor children and infants who’ve passed away.
On All Souls’ Day, which is Nov. 2, Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” refers specifically to the day to commemorate adults who’ve died – but the term is used to refer to the full three-day event.
Hawkins’ two-week project did much more, however, than introduce students to how different cultures remember their dead. The project incorporated reading, writing, language arts (including Spanish) and the STEM courses – science, technology, engineering and math.
Along with writing a report on the subject and incorporating Spanish words and phrases, the kids were given metric measurements and asked to build their own ofrendas, among additional steps. The kids chose their materials and, after learning the concepts, constructed their own vision of what an ofrenda should be.
Because an ofrenda is also called an “altar” (even though not the popular American definition), Hawkins knew the project may cause some unease.
Students whose parents were uneasy about possible religious overtones of the project were given alternative projects to complete, but almost all of the Parris South fifth grade participated, and the lesson was addressed in a secular way.
Ofrendas are usually brightly colored in the deceased’s favorite colors, decorated with flowers and pictures of the lost loved one (much like a grave site or mantle would be here in the South), and favorite personal items and foods of the loved one’s are left as a way of “easing their spirit.”
Participating students created a vast array of brightly colored ofrendas, decorated with crepe and tissue paper flowers and traditional artwork, some brought traditional Hispanic foods, and some even dressed up in stunning traditional costumes.
“While learning about Dia de los Muertos, students learned Spanish words and phrases – which was really cool because our native Spanish speakers were able to help with pronunciation and definitions,” Hawkins added.
Hawkins is proud of her students and their work. The new teacher delivered to Hardin County a taste of culture that is “not from ‘round here” and which offers a different perspective on a subject we all have to face – how we honor our lost loved ones.

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