I remember my own introduction to US History half a century ago: boring. Behavior and grunt memorization were the keynotes of history, with side-trips for making graphs and tables. Always, of course, with the US of A as Number One In All Things.
The American Revolution was (since I think in visuals) a blurred and static image of lofty, Zeus-browed men dressed in white wigs and satin with knee-buckles, shooting documents like the Declaration and the Constitution straight from their foreheads into textbooks, to be memorized and tested on. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto historical fiction that the astounding notion of historical men were…actual…human beings occurred. There weren’t any historical women in those days, unless they were very saintly and martyred, or evil and then they wouldn’t tell us what for. Through fiction I made the astonishing discovery that the famous men were dads and brothers and sons and best friends!
(This was YA literature. In fifth grade the idea of historical men being lovers was even squickier than worms in sandwiches.)
So when I was a fifth grade teacher, doing the state required unit on US History, I paused in the text as often as I could and played “imagine” with the kids. Their restlessness would cease as I described what it must have been like sitting in those brick and stone buildings, windows closed, air stuffy (but at least the bluebottles were shut out) trying to invent a government from scratch, because how could you make it work without a king? While wondering if the Redcoats would break in and haul them off to a personalized hanging. Benjamin Franklin’s “We must all hang together or surely we will hang separately” took some explaining, but you know what showed up on almost every test after that particular chapter? Most got the dates right, many got the names right, but just about every kid in my class talked about the heat, the fear, and the bluebottles–and Benjamin Franklin worrying about them being hauled off and hanged.
Kids, like adults, respond deeply to experience, both lived through and shared. Isn’t that was ‘story’ is really about? To my students, the assassination of JFK lay in the loooong, grayish smear of The Past. He was just a name amid a jumble of men’s names, with no surrounding context–except that he was shot.
One year I told the kids what it was like on that day. Of course I was no eye-witness. I was a seventh grader in Los Angeles. But those kids listened with every cell in their bodies as I described how frightening it was to come into class after lunch, to find our history teacher distraught. Teachers didn’t have emotions, except for crabby when the class was bad, and neutral otherwise. But here was Mr H, who had a week before been showing us so proudly the blurry snapshot of his newborn son Joey, sitting there with his mouth pressed in a line, and when he asked for quiet his voice was hoarse.
But you didn’t ask personal questions in those days. Then the overhead speaker came on, and when the principal himself came on (unheard of!) and announced that the President of the United States had been shot, but was in the hospital and doctors were working on him to save his life, we all looked at one another in shock, some laughing the way people do to try to jettison feelings, some of us terrorized because surely that meant the Russian ‘commies’ were poised to drop an atom bomb on us before the end of class. The worst thing, the absolute worst, was when we turned to Mr H for cues and saw his head bowed, his hand hiding his eyes. Hisses rustled back from the first row, “The teacher is crying!” I recall pressing my arms over my gnawing stomach as I waited for the bombs we’d been hearing about ever since kindergarten, when we had those weekly bomb drills.
As years went by, I discovered that anyone old enough to remember that day could pinpoint where they were and what they were doing. That emotional proximity to great events cements them in memory, making us a part of them.
I told the fifth graders five years ago that their own kids and even grandkids might ask them to tell the story of where they were when the twin towers came down. The class reaction was “Ooooooh!” They did know some history, in the sense of feeling a part of it. The lesson about personal history (special days just to you), and family history (days that are special to your family, but others don’t care about) and the widening rings of interest, depending on impact, were just barely in view.
When I taught high school history, I could go more deeply into causes and effects of the French Revolution by relating the great events to personal histories. How at the beginning people were on fire with joy, because everybody of whatever social degree had the right to speak out. Like the butcher’s daughter Olympe de Gouges, who offered to defend King Louis before the Convention. Her Declaration of the Rights of Women seemed harbinger of true civilization for half the population of Europe . . . until 1793, of course, when the Committee decided that women out of their places were as threatening to “peace” as aristocrats, monks, priests, and nuns, writers, and the many, many other types of human they had to stamp out for the good of the nation.
I tried to get across how especially in the bright early days, participants–and everybody could be one if you could get to a Paris coffee house and offer a needed skill–had a strong sense of making history–so many writings and speeches began with this awareness–and how that began inexorably to unravel as one man’s, or woman’s ‘history’ collided with another’s, and conflicts increasingly were resolved with violence because there were no laws in place, no customs, even, showing how to deal with conflict. All that had gone out the window along with aristocratic trappings. What happens when my idea of law is not yours? How can we enforce it if there are no judges, lawyers, or police? Either we talk it out . . . or we fight it out.
I’d read them Wordsworth in 1805, after Napoleon had thrown over Talleyrand’s patched-up Peace of Amiens, and so Talleyrand withdrew to watch the comet burn himself out, and plan what to do with the remains. Wordsworth only knew that the peace had failed, so he wrote about the French Revolution, “As it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement”:
OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
Wow, does that sound familiar to many of us who were young and strong in the sixties? (Though let’s not get too romantical: for us in L.A. ’69 was not the “Summer of Love” as at Woodstock, it was the summer of hellish heat, boys our age being summarily shipped off to Vietnam, the Watts Riots, and Charles Manson’s rampage. )
Anyway, showing kids that ‘history’ is every person’s story gathered into patterns, and that they are part of history right now, as they live, breathe, listen, and make decisions that effect others, the events of the past came alive, just a little.