History Lessons…

10 Jan

The busy teacher lady was ten or twelve years older than her students and sixty five years younger than her guest speaker, a white haired combat veteran of WWII. He wore no medals nor did he wear an aged uniform or wave a flag. He was probably somebody’s grandfather.


“Today, we have a real live veteran of the uh, some war …. he’ll tell you everything about it. Remember, class, this is history and history is important. Isn’t it Mr. Veteran?” This is off to a bad start, he whispered to himself.

Ms. Kelley’s classroom was not alive and buzzing with expectation. Old people were so out of it, so uncool and drove too slowly on the wrong side of the road and left their signal lights on. They even stop for yellow lights. The sixth and seventh graders groaned at the video. They were masters at malaise, dozing and appraising video games, basketball playoffs, guys and girls, nerds and hotties. On the monitor’s screen, paratroopers dropped out of the sky to restore freedom and hope to a dying Europe and to the starving world.

The veteran tried to describe the struggles of their ancestors to help make their world a safer place. He spoke of our earliest Rebellion against British Oppression, the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and how sometimes you had to stand up against tyranny, greed, prejudice and injustice. They had to defend their beliefs with their fortunes, their honor and their lives. The teacher, busily grading computerized test papers, added, “Class, listen closely, this is history.” Where? When? Who? Why? So far, no such questions. Did everyone understand or care or ‘whatever’?

With the agony ended, the veteran mortified and the scratchy movie done … and the kids anxious for the bell, the teacher invited unwanted questions. There are usually none. “How old are you, you look awfully old.”

“Isn’t history like something like in the Civil War, like?” Mr. V. stumbled but the teacher filled in. “No, the Civil War was actually what we call the First World War which was between France and England, I think.” She looked to Mr. V. for support. He choked. Or chuckled. And he advised that “The first World War was between Egypt and Kadesh near Gaza about thirty five hundred years ago. The world was much smaller then. It wasn’t on T.V. (Amused-cynical-chuckle) Have you read about Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. They were battles for freedom, for the rights to speak out and be heard, no matter your views. Tell me about freedom. No? Anybody?”

“Who knows about freedom? It was different world then but the causes of conflict were the same as now: fear, power, submission and intolerance. Revenge was a good reason for war. Two big kings got mad. Somebody’s toes got stepped on., but “The American Civil War, between our own states, was a tragic test of ideas and ideals, even between families. On both sides of a battlefield, the soldiers traded news from home, often not good news. A half million soldiers died for the dignity and freedom of all people.” The sleeping one voiced, “My grandfather was in that war.” Other grandfathers had been in the Civil War and knew each other because they all came to Florida from Ohio.

“Listen, young people. History is not only about war. It’s about how nations and cultures evolved; it’s about good and bad governments and geography, economics, greed and poverty … it’s about religion and its extremes, suspicion, ignorance and the struggle for truth. Mostly, it’s about good people doing what they know is right. If you see history that way you may help bring peace to the world. Can you believe that?” “Yeah, cool!” someone mumbled.

A hand went up. A live one. “How many Japs and Germans did you kill?” Mr. V. swallowed the lump in his throat and looked to the floor. The boy knew something of history. He demanded, “Did you know John Wayne? He was at the Alamo and Iwo Jimbo but I don’t think my father was there.” “My uncle got wounded in Korea, that’s in Viet Nam. There were a lot of Japanese there.” “Did you have a horse?” “My uncle has a neat old sword; he bought it in a pawnshop for ten dollars.” At last, history breathing. “You got any medals?”

Mr. V. asked, “How often do you study history?” The teacher was touchy about that. “Mr. V., we don’t teach history until the ninth grade, it’s not prime among our studies at the moment; it detracts from our serious studies and test preparations. We have testing every two weeks. Our budget depends on good scores. We often read biographies and sometimes, news articles. Reading, writing, arithmetic and self appreciation are our main subjects at this level.” The old fellow almost asked, “Do you teach wondering, questioning, thinking, blind acceptance and argument?” But he didn’t.

A small voice disagreed, “I think we had history last term, but I was sick on that day and missed it, but we didn’t have any tests so it didn’t matter.” It didn’t matter, didn’t matter. That made sense to Mr. V. It didn’t matter what he said or how he tried to make history real and worthwhile … it didn’t matter because their time for learning and reasoning was running out. In four or five years they would graduate and perhaps never know or care when and how their nation came to be. They may never know the realities and costs of freedom. They will speak their minds with bumper stickers and MySpace.

“You know any war stories? My grandfather tells war stories. I think he was in the Revolution or someplace. He says he knew George Washington but I don’t think he means it.” Mr. V. looked to the teacher who was passing out test papers. “Do we have time for a real war story?” Silence. “Of course we do, this is a chance to learn all about history.” Mr. V. winced. “Class, would you like a real war story? We have five minutes till the bell.” Two boys raised their hands to go to the toilets. Another went to the pencil sharpener. Two girls were busy with workbooks. They’d been reading about self-esteem, hairstyles and social injustice during Mr. V.’s discourse.

“Let’s talk about Gettysburg,” said Mr. V., “because that was the most decisive page in our history. We almost lost our wonderful nation. I was right there on Bunker Hill with Andrew Jackson and his brother Stonewall The British Redcaps were advancing … “It was absurdity. He was getting their attention. He might have been talking about his flights on a spaceship. “Russian Cossacks charged down the lines swinging their samovars and balalaikas. Republicans, Liberals, Federalists and Democrats hurled atrocious insults. The Radicals fought back with barbs and innuendos” Along came Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from San Juan … and George Patton, Geronimo, Genghis Kahn, Wellington, Stalin, Napoleon and Robert E. Lee and Winston Churchill. Were they all at Gettysburg? In a figurative way, yes. Question? Yes? “Didn’t Custard or somebody have a last stand or something? He beat the crap out of some Indians. We read that in the Charge of the Light Brigade or someplace. That was neat. Like they all got shot right off their horses.” Mr. V. said, “Whatever,” and that sufficed.

“Let me close with this,” the old man pleaded. “History is the account of all nations, new and old, big and small, how they rose up, survived, prospered and fell. It’s the story of societies, cultures, religions, languages. Think. How does geography affect freedom. It’s about freedom to be yourself … and it’s about oppression. History repeats and repeats … and … ” he looked away. The kids had been kind but the wall he hit was solid brick.

The others, with eyes on the clock were not history-spellbound. One was. He sat with chin in hand until the class was gone. He came up to Mr. V. who was shaking his head. “Mr. V., you was putting us on, wasn’t you?” Yes, he knew. One was saved. Mr. V said, “I should not have done that. It was unfair. Please accept my apology.”

So one saw the sham and would go on to greatness, perhaps write creative history. Mr. V. put his hand on the boy’s shoulder which is illegal. “So, you caught me. It was all caustic humor. I’ve become cynical in my elder years. Please forgive me. Maybe that’s what most of history is: the past in a smoky pink haze reflected in a crystal clear rear view mirror, if at all. History isn’t on the class agenda because it doesn’t relate to social problems, pizza, hip huggers, tattoos and video games with exterminators to blast the cops.” The boy looked puzzled. Mr. V. asked, “Tell me, when did you suspect that my Battle of Gettysburg story was made up nonsense? It wasn’t that way at all. Truth is the first casualty of war. Remember that when you read the newspapers.”

“It was good until you got to the part about cell phones. Heck, they never had cell phones until Benjamin Franklin invented electricity, I think that was in 1892. They had slaves back then to do the laundry. He invented the washing machine, too. That put lots of people out of work”

And, fellow veterans, if you suspect that our young adults-in-waiting are feasting on history … as we did, I invite you to sit in a history class if you can find one. And if invited to speak more than a dozen words, do so. For starters, ask the kids to define history and stand back for the silence. History is a word until its lessons come to life. Don’t talk too much about yourself; don’t do the Gettysburg act as I did, shamefully. Abraham Lincoln’s famed address remains unfinished. As the kids say, “Cool, like, wow, you hear what I mean?” “Whatever!”

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