Please permit a re-post for an important anniversary.

History Comes Alive.

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 us 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 50 years later.


I have often struggled to get my students to appreciate the dynamic flow of history. The entire concept of history itself is tricky for teenagers. Their sense of time is compressed; anyone older than them is “old” and anyone older than their parents is “ancient”. To them, the Internet is the most significant historical development of the last 500 years (maybe it is), and LeBron James is the greatest athlete who has ever worn shoes (maybe he is). When I have assigned research projects about great 20th century Americans, they pick Tiger Woods or Madonna. Their idea of a historical mystery is not who killed JFK, but who killed Tupac.


Students can understand the importance of history. It is what makes up their memories. We all own a personal history, a family history, a world history. This is what creates the reference points in our lives. History is nothing more than the imperfect recollections of our shared experience.  As Voltaire said: “History is fables agreed upon”. 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 us forever.


We live in a time of fast changing and tempestuous events. History is the ongoing struggles of individual people and mighty nations. The Presidential elections of today, the natural disasters of last week will fill chapters in tomorrow’s books.


What I seek to do is to bring to my classroom a small understanding of history as humankind’s ongoing shared experience. It tells of successes, wonders and failures.  We retell it for comfort, like an old but treasured family story. That family is us. It is that kind of history that makes up my first memory. Many years later, I can close my eyes and still see it.


I can also still see the morning one of my students (who later served a tour of duty in Afghanistan), rushed into my room to tell me that planes had crashed in the World Trade Center. We shared that experience that awful day: class memory, national memory, world memory. History suddenly jumped off the page and slapped us all in the face.


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