In which we meet the teacher, and his students, on the first day of class
NOTE: As you’ll see below, student dialogue is color-coded, but there’s no need for you to keep track; it will be easy enough to follow the flow of conversation.
Welcome. I’m Abraham King, a.k.a. Abe King, a.k.a. Mr. K. Here we go.
You come here with different dispositions toward the subject at hand. Some of you are naturally inclined toward history; others of you, not so much. I’m here because I love history. My love of the subject doesn’t entirely explain my presence in this room, which is the result of my finite talents, hard work, and other factors such as my demographic background, the state of the economy, and the availability of this job at a time when I was looking for one. To greater or lesser degrees, these circumstances are a matter of luck.
I consider myself fortunate, among other reasons because I get to do something I like and I make a living while doing it. To be sure, I’ve had my fantasies about cushier posts in fancier places. But in my better moments, I don’t so much count as savor my blessings. Which might be another way of saying that I’m getting old.
Of course, many of you plausibly hope for more than becoming a high school history teacher. You’re off to a good running start; while I don’t claim to know about your family lives, and assume all of you have greater or lesser challenges, you take any number of things for granted that others cannot. This is not a remedial class, and you’re not taking it at night or on weekends, or years after your peers have graduated from high school. All of you happen to be U.S. citizens, though not all of your parents were born here. Your English is good (though surely not good enough for Ms. Anthony or Mr. Kiedis over in the English department). In such a context a U.S. history class is really something of a luxury, even if you don’t experience it that way.
You have one other asset that’s of incalculable value: your youth. What a wonderful, and lamentably perishable, asset. It makes you effortlessly interesting, even when you’re sitting listlessly at your desks. The main reason why is your enviable sense of possibility. Screwing up this class doesn’t mean your life is over, academically or otherwise. And if you shine, it may help you burn brighter later. Best of all from my standpoint, your youth keeps me young. I bask in your reflected light.
That said, you don’t keep me that young. There’s an old joke in teaching that you get older, but the kids keep getting younger. I started in this business when I was 25 years old, teaching students who were just a few years younger than I was. You’re finding me when I’m over three times your age, and when the gap between us is not simply something I experience in terms of years but more importantly in terms of assumptions, attitudes, and aspirations. To be blunt, I’m struggling act my age, just as some of you are struggling to act yours. A depressing thought: it never gets any easier. But I hope to put that struggle to good use.
How might I do that? By leveraging the fact that I’m an artifact. I don’t just teach history: I am history. Of course, that’s true of a lot of people in your life. You’re constantly hearing Old People talk about how this or that used to be, not only for themselves but their parents and grandparents. I’m generally more informed than the person on the street when it comes to such things. More to the point, if you’ll permit some technical language here, is that my value is less a matter of history than historiography. Historiography is the history of History, as it were: the chronicle of shifts that have occurred in the discipline.
Once upon a time, history was a branch of literature. The coming of the industrial revolution transformed the medieval-based university, centered on religion, into research institutions that emphasized applied knowledge. In order to stay relevant, history evolved (to use a buzzword of the time) from an literary art into … well, it couldn’t be a science: human beings are too slippery when it comes to subjecting them to experiments. But if history could not be a science, it hopped on the bandwagon with a series of new disciplines—like psychology, economics, and sociology—and became a social science. In the process, history teaching became professionalized, requiring degrees and certification even at the public school level.
Perhaps as a result of all this modernizing, there was a growing awareness among historians that the past keeps changing. Of course the facts don’t change. But which facts, and how they’re interpreted, are the key. Which is to say that each generation writes, and then teaches, its own history. Actually, people within a generation often write competing histories. And yet even those can be linked in their very opposition. Historian X may phenomenon Y is wonderful, while Historian Z thinks it’s terrible. But their shared interest in Y—what later generations consider their obsession with Y—may make X and Z far more alike than different as far as A, B, and C are concerned.
Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m an X or a Z and you all are A, B, or C. But you’re too young to write, much less teach, your own history. For now, your job is to learn it with my help. I’ll tell you right now that even though you may not notice, or care, there are all kinds of things that are going to be wrong with the versions of the story you’re going to hear from me. I won’t be lying to you, and I’m not incompetent. But I’m inevitably a man of my time and place, a time and place that overlaps, but not entirely, with yours. So even as there will be some things I get wrong as far as you’ll later be concerned, there will be others that I’ll get right and still others that will be forgotten. None of us can entirely be sure which will be which, though. This is just one of the ways in which history is a matter of guesswork. You work with what you have. And what you have right now is me.
And what I have is you. I look out from my vantage point at the front of the classroom and I see your curious faces. Some of you are fair-haired; some of you are dark-skinned. I sense your differences in height even as you sit in those chairs and your sense of alertness by looking at your eyes. Your clothes make statements you do and don’t intend. But again, right now, you’re still mysteries to me. In time I’ll get to know you, and we’ll make history together.
Of course, “know” is a relative term. In a day or two, I’ll have remembered all your names (I hope). I’ll consciously and unconsciously gather information about you based on what you say and what you don’t, what you write and whether or not you hand that writing in on time. Before too long, I’ll begin to get a sense of your personalities—which of you are introverts, which are extroverts, that kind of thing. There will, for our mutual comfort, be barriers between us—you don’t want me showing up at your parties on Saturday nights, after all. But we’re going to be spending a fair amount of time together in the confines of this room over the course of the next nine months, and it’s inevitable and good that we’ll gain some knowledge of each other.
Let’s get that ball rolling. Introduce yourselves to me. In the process, say something about yourself that your classmates—who probably know you better than I do— may be surprised to hear. By a surprising stroke of luck, we have a very small class—apparently there was a scheduling quirk involving PE classes. I’m hoping that will make things a little easier. Let’s start here to my left.
—Hi. I’m Sadie. What else should I say?
Tell us where you live, Sadie. Maybe what your folks do. And maybe what you like to do in your spare time. Something like that.
—I live in Linwood. My mom is a nurse over at Riverside hospital. My dad is an accountant. I really like Harry Potter.
—She’s not kidding.
I take it you’re a friend of Sadie’s. In part because you’re sitting next to her.
—Yeah. I’m Emily. I live around the block from Sadie in Linwood. My parents are both in real estate. I like Harry Potter too, but not like Sadie. I’m more of a Hunger Games person. I’m also on the basketball team.
And you’re very shy, Emily. I can see that.
—Right. Quietest kid in the class.
Sounds good. And you?
—I’m Kylie. I live in Federal Hill. My mom works for Pepsico. She makes sure stores have soda and stuff. My parents are divorced. My dad lives a couple hours away. He does construction-type work.
And what about you, Kylie? Harry Potter or Hunger Games? Maybe Twilight?
—No, I don’t go for that stuff. I like to stream Modern Family.
All right, then. Sadie, Emily, Kylie. What it is it with the e-sounding names? Don’t tell me: your name ends with an “e” sound.
Oh! You broke the streak.
—Sorry about that. I live downtown, over on Thompson Street. My mom has a bakery over there.
Oh yes. Sweet Thing. Great place! Love the rugelach.
—Yeah. It’s good.
You look pretty trim for the son of a baker, Jonah.
—Yeah, well, I eat enough of the stuff. But I run cross country in the fall and do track in the winter. Baseball in the summer. That helps.
What’s your best event?
—I like to run half-marathons.
Impressive. And you?
—I’m Adam. I live in Linwood. My dad is a lawyer.
What kind of law?
—I’m not sure; he has his own office, wills and stuff. He has his own office in town. My mom stays home with my brother and sister and me I’m the oldest; they’re twelve and ten. I like to do computer programming.
Good for you. That should come in handy.
—I’m Jonquil. I live in Gardenville. My mom works for the town.
What does she do?
—She’s works in the tax assessor’s office. I’m not really sure what she does there. She’s been there since before I was born.
Have you lived in Gardenville your whole life?
—No. We moved there last summer. My mom and I like to walk our dog over by the pond. I go to the animal shelter most weekends.
Good for you. Yes, go ahead.
—I’m Yin. My parents are from China. I was born in California. We moved here two years ago when my dad got transferred. I like to play the cello. I also play some piano.
Do you play with the school orchestra?
—Yes. I also play with the county youth orchestra.
Excellent. You like the Bach cello concerti?
—Yes. I practice them all the time.
And who is that to your left?
—I’m Ethan. I live on Federal Hill, just like Kylie. My mom is a teacher over in Springfield. My dad is a consultant, he helps people starting businesses. I play on the school soccer team and a travel soccer team. I’m a striker.
What does your mom teach?
Phew. I was afraid you were going to say social studies. Then I’d be in real trouble.
—Nah. She’s not bad that way.
Good to hear. And you?
—I’m Brianna. I’m a twin. My sister’s name is Carla. She’s in Ms. Carsky’s class. We live with my parents in Linwood. They have the deli over on Francis Street, near the highway.
Yes. I get my coffee there on Sunday mornings.
—I know. My dad tells me.
And what do you like to do for fun, Brianna?
—I dunno. I help my parents. I like to listen to music.
Who do you like to listen to?
—I like Rihanna. Christina Aguilera. Beyonce, too. Selena Gomez. My parents just introduced me to the other Selena.
And who’s that next to you?
Hi Paolo. Where do you live?
—Downtown. With my dad. Over by the train station. He works at the hospital. He’s not a doctor or anything. He does maintenance-type things.
Anything else you want to tell us, Paolo?
—No, not really.
Fair enough. And last but not least …
—I’m Chris. I live in Linwood too. My mom manages the Chilis on Central Ave.
—Chris helped build the sets in last year’s spring musical.
Is that right, Emily?
Will you do it again, Chris?
—I dunno. I hope so.
All right, kids. We’ve just written our introduction. Come here tomorrow and we’ll start chapter one, as it were. Bye, Yin. Take care, Jonah. See ya, Kylie. So long, Chris…
Next: Life (by analogy) on Mars