As a teacher, I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t recall much from my first few years of school. All I have is fuzzy memories of creaky desks, penmanship lessons and Sisters in tall habits.

Yet one day in my first few months of Kindergarten stands out starkly in my mind.  The teachers woke us from our nap that Friday, (yes, nap time was a standard part of our day), assembled all the students, and dismissed them earlier than usual. They didn’t say anything to us, but outside, anxious mothers and older siblings grabbed little hands tighter than usual. I was delivered home just a few blocks away. When I walked in, I saw my mother and a neighbor sitting side by side on the sofa, sobbing. In the corner, our small black and white television showed muted, flickering images.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“They killed the President,” my mother replied haltingly.

This remains the earliest memory that I can identify and I can see it clearly even today.

It can be a challenge to teach History to teenagers. Their sense of time—and hence, History—is compressed. It is telescoped by their limited experience. Anything that happened before the dawn of the Internet is ancient history and not worthy of much thought. When I assign research projects about great 20th century Americans, they pick Tiger Woods or Madonna. Their idea of a historical mystery was not who killed JFK, but who killed Tupac.

You CAN teach young people about history. We live in a time of fast changing and tempestuous events. History, I like to tell my students, is nothing more than today’s news. History isn’t just the facts and names in a large textbook, it is the ongoing struggles of people and nations. The Presidential election of today, the natural disaster of last week will fill chapters in tomorrow’s books. History is nothing more than the imperfect recollections of our shared experience. We breathe History, we don’t just study it. It happens all around us every day. It is intricate, subtle and inevitable. And it stays with you forever.

I used to start off every class by saying: “History will happen today.” What I sought to do was to bring a small understanding of History as mankind’s ongoing shared experience, like an old but treasured family story. We are the family.

In 2011, I had only had a few classes and not many chances to lead off with: ‘History will happen today.’ But that Tuesday, September 11th, as students and staff anxiously left school for the day, a student passed me and said, “You were right, History DID happen today.” Yes, I thought, and it will surely happen tomorrow as well.

I went home that afternoon frightened, angry and confused. Once again, horrendous images emanated from a television in a corner. I hugged my 3½ year old son a little tighter than usual, fearing that perhaps his earliest memory had been formed that day.

Advertisements