Let us be clear: it is not their fault. Not entirely. It’s what comes of throwing darts at a world map for twelve years; of a History channel besotted with ancient aliens, buried treasure, and celebrity pawnbrokers – each, one would have thought, less likely to exist than the last; of uninspired and uninformed teaching; of an arrogant and myopic zeitgeist, glutted with adipose information, lustily discarding the common inheritance of mankind for the evening news and a bowl of red stew.
My phone rings. It’s 5:15.
“Mr. Delano? Yes, good morning. You see we’ve just had a call-out from Cape High in Rehoboth. Are you free to substitute today?”
“For which class exactly, ma’am?”
“It’s Mr. Floyd’s 12th grade history. Can I tell the administration to expect you?”
“Yes, I can make it today. Thank you.”
In defiance of every sleep study conducted between the North Pole and the Cape of Good Hope, and contrary to the better angels of adolescent instinct, praising in one voice the blessing that is a good night’s rest, classes begin at the high school at 7:15, proving, once and for all, that life apparently isn’t too short.
I arrive at 7. The lesson plan and accompanying materials are neatly set out. I’ll teach four periods that day, with an empty slot typically reserved for preparing, and a half-block off for lunch.
The first and second classes pass uneventfully. I faithfully discharge the duties of a prison guard. The third class shuffles in. I inform them they’ll be watching a documentary on the First World War. I am their champion. I inform them they’ll be expected to complete a worksheet while watching. I may as well be leprous.
“Can’t we just sit and talk? We won’t tell Mr. Floyd!”
“We promise to be quiet!”
“We’ve already learned about this anyway!”
“We graduate in less than a month. No one’s going to remember any of it.”
“None of this even matters. No one cares.”
I caved. They could talk so long as they made a good-faith effort to fill out the worksheet. No one expects much of a sub. But a few minutes before class ended, something happened. One of the seniors, a boy, a young man I suppose, was laughing just beside the screen. He wasn’t watching the documentary – the likeness would have been lost on him – but he looked just like one of the soldiers. He’d been hit by something, the soldier, and he was laying in a trench, a pit really. Men were rushing past him, over him, and he was tugging at himself frantically, crying, calling for his mother. Then he was still.
The bell rings and half the worksheets make their way to my desk. I have an hour to prepare before my fourth and final period of the day. I set to work.
“Mr. D, all the other classes got to watch that stupid movie. That’s not fair.”
“How are we going to do our work? Mr. Floyd said to do that worksheet.”
“Ooo, I’m gonna tell my mom to fire you.”
“This is so petty- no one cares."
I've decided to do something different with the last class.
“You’re a month from graduation. You’ve had a unit, to be sure, on Greece, Rome, and Egypt, perhaps when you were eight; a year or two’s recycling of American history; a year of civics; your junior and senior years have been devoted to Western Europe since the rise of Napoleon; and you are all, I expect, well acquainted with the history of this, our noble state of Delaware. But if matters are as I suspect, these have, collectively, served to create a hobgoblin of history in your minds: you don’t know Mazzini from a Matzo ball; George Washington from Johnny Appleseed; or Julius Caesar from the salad – and you’ve a vague notion the former is responsible for the latter. In your minds, Genghis Khan cohabitates with Mahatma Gandhi; Isaac Newton narrowly avoids being sacrificed atop Mt. Moriah; and Mother Theresa sets the table with Mother Goose – and this, all before the fall of Rome! Worst of all – deprived of the coherent, unified tapestry of history with which you might have adorned the windows of your mind – you have been shut out. Or rather: shut in. You are imprisoned in the here, the now. You haven’t been told the greatest story of all. I have good news. You’re late. To a number of very important dates. But in case I’ve underestimated you, let me begin like Socrates, with a few questions…”
“We’ll start close to home. Here are some questions immigrants looking to naturalize into the U.S. are expected to be able to answer…
“We elect a senator for how many years? Declan.”
“Isn’t that a trick question? Don’t you stay a senator until you die?”
“No, Declan, not unless you’re an aspiring Sith Lord, or looking to bring about the end of the Roman Republic. Correct answer: six years.”
“What are the first three words of the Constitution? Kara.”
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”
“That’s not three words, Kara. Also it’s wrong. Steven.”
“Four score and seven years ago–”
“Right direction, but no. And that’s not three words. Glad you’re familiar with the Gettysburg Address though Steven. Katherine.”
“Friends, Romans, countrymen.”
“Overshot it by a little. And that’s Shakespeare. Nice try Katherine. Correct answer: We the People.”
“The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the what? Rylan.”
“The Ten Commandments?”
“Very good. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Moses would be very proud.”
“Let’s try some geography. Which state shares borders with more states than any other? Jaden.”
“You can understand why that’s unlikely Jaden – being that Hawaii is an island, yes?”
“Somehow you’ve managed to go backwards, sir. Emily.”
“Not a bad guess! Actu–”
“Wait! I meant Denver! No, Canada!”
“I’m sorry, we actually gave up Canada in exchange for Louisiana in 1803. Correct answer: Tennessee or Missouri.”
“Perhaps some world history... Can anyone tell me something about Mahatma Gandhi?”
“Wasn’t he that nice, smart old man that led all those little people across them mountains to make peace?”
“Maybe, do you mean Indi–”
“Yeah, like to destroy that ring.”
“Ah. You’re thinking of Gandalf– the wizard from the Lord of the Rings.”
“I don’t think so. Didn’t he like fly on some eagles or something?”
“Forgive me. They did have that in common.”
“I don’t like this game. I wish Mr. Floyd was back.”
“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.”
“Forget it. Greek mythology! Who can remember something, really anything, special about Hercules? Cheryl.”
“Didn’t his mom dip him in the water, so like he had an Achilles’ heel?”
“That was Achilles. But it’s wonderful you’re familiar with him! Have you read the Iliad?”
“An epic poem about Achilles and the war at Troy.”
“No, but I’ve seen Troy.”
“With Brad Pitt.”
“He was sooo fine.”
“Homer would agree with you.”
“Class, how many continents are there? Emma.”
“Name them, please.”
“North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica.”
“You’re missing one.”
“In what century did both world wars take place? Demarcus?”
“The 25th century? What a relief, we’ve time to prepare.”
“Enough of the gadfly. Please hear me: I have been where you are. It’s not so much that you don’t find these things interesting, as that you only half-believe them to be true. If you really believed these things had happened, how could you not want to know more? Listen to me, please–”
I draw a line from one edge of the dry-erase board to the other: 4,000 BC to 2023 AD.
“Look at us. Look where we are. This is roughly the length of recorded history. Do you understand, can you grasp that people have been living, breathing, eating, having children, sleeping, marrying, dying, dreaming, writing, speaking, hoping, wishing, all this time? You have fears- so did they. You want love- so did they. They were babies and children and teenagers and parents and old men and women, and they lived their entire lives before you even showed up. You’re late! You’re late! Things have happened! Nations have risen and fallen, books have been written, ideas formed, fortunes, lives, made and destroyed. Storms have raged, mothers have buried their own children, sons their fathers, entire romances have been lived out, and you know none of it! You’ve been alive, most of you, for eighteen years. It’s not your fault. Not entirely. But if you haven’t yet, start by believing now. Believe that others as valuable as you, as human as you, with hearts like yours, minds like yours, flesh and blood like yours have been. Believe them. Believe in them. Believe that losing a child wasn’t any easier a century ago than it is now. Believe that Athenian wives, 2,500 years ago, mourned their husbands’ loss as much as any wife today. Believe that it was awkward, exciting, nerve-wracking to be a young lady approaching adulthood in Victorian England. Believe that young men have been falling head-over-heels in love for millennia and, for better or worse, writing about it! Believe you’re late. I know this sounds hard. I’m only saying it like this to wake you up. You are important. But so are they. Let me show you, please–”
“Someone, anyone, just point, please: where on this timeline did the first plane fly? Am I down here, 2000 BC? 500 AD? It’s not a joke, and I’m not making fun, not anymore; I just want you to see. 1000 AD? 1500? I’ll take from the silence you’re not sure. 1903.”
“The Wright Brothers in 1903. Less than 300 miles from here! But look at it. Look at that point. Do you see? Do you see how recent it is? Can you imagine how much of the human race had dreamt about flying before, just a hundred years ago, it became a reality? How many paper airplanes, made by how many children? How many afternoons spent gazing at the clouds, nights at the stars?”
“But we could fill this line with a thousand moments like it. Kings and queens, cities and states, slaves and citizens, knights and monks and samurai and cowboys, industry and invention, plagues, wars, epics. Let me show you how it all fits together! Let me show you what you’ve missed. It’s history, but it happened. And you’re late.”
Slowly, we filled our line. They wanted to know how TV got its start, when cowboys were a thing, who built the pyramids, why everyone makes fun of the French. Some of the questions were ridiculous– but not intentionally. For a moment, they wondered. They began to believe.