I learned the other day that my old neighbor, Bob Jones, had died. He was a very old man. Mr. Jones was one of my history teachers when I was in high school. My parents and he were friends, and I knew through them that he followed my career until he was no longer able. I suspect his family will say he had a good life. Even though I had not spoken to him in many years, I wish that I could have gone home to California for his memorial service. I owe him a lot, I think.
Let’s be clear. I graduated from high school almost forty years ago. There are classes I took that I am certain I remember nothing about. There are other classes that I remember for reasons that had nothing to do with the content. I remember the mystery fiction teacher who looked just like Mark Mothersbaugh in his prime DEVO years (and I attended high school just after DEVO’s prime years.) I remember the guy who taught a class in science fiction and fantasy literature. He was an alcoholic. We all knew that, and he was falling apart a little bit each day. He was the first of a number of people I saw go to pieces. This may not be a good reason for remembering a class–I know we read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy–but it was an education that added some strange element toour discussions of the trials of a small band of reluctant adventurers making their way into Mordor.
To be honest, I remember less about Mr. Jones’ class than where some of my friends sat in that classroom. I could draw a map of that room from memory. I know it was an American history class, and I can imagine that we talked about subjects that matter to me much more now than they did back then.
But there are two things I remember quite vividly. The first was a sort of Great Depression game. We played the stock market. Some students still play this game in high school history. The prices went shooting up. Should we sell? Mr. Jones asked us to think about this. Or should we wait and see if the prices continued to climb. Some of us did quite well. Some of us hung on to our stocks too long. We ended up holding worthless pieces of paper. Black Friday.
The second thing must have occurred on or near the first day of the term. Mr. Jones gave each of us a penny. Imagine, he said, that this is all that we know of a lost civilization, and you are the archaeologist who discovered this coin. This is all the evidence we have. What conclusions could you reasonably draw? Lincoln was God. I remember that coming from the discussion. But I also remember realizing for the first time that if you looked really closely, you could see Lincoln sitting in the Lincoln Memorial on the “tails” side of the coin.
The content, I would argue is beside the point. I remember both of these assignments because they were fun. I remember Mr. Jones having fun as well. Obviously he knew precisely when the market was going to fall, and I am sure he had done the penny project many times before, but he laughed when we laughed, and he was buoyed by our enthusiasm.
High school history teachers can do three things, it seems to me. They can help a student feel nothing towards history. They can help a student hate history. Or they can help a student fall in love with a subject. Mine was obviously in the latter category, and that penny project was the earliest instance I can think of in school where I was required to think like a historian.
High school was miserable for me. It always involved avoiding the Jocks who liked to pound on the punk rock kids and the skaters, made worse because the principal was the principal jock’s dad. I left school at lunch for my senior year because I signed up for a course I took at nights at the junior college. That was allowed back then. I had my afternoons off, and for three periods a day I did not have to attend school. Teachers ranged from the drunk to the deranged to the creepy and the frustrating. But there were a significant number of really good ones, and I am proud to say that I knew them.
Teachers have the power to destroy or to create, and they can do both with a single sentence. It is an incredible responsibility. I am glad that some of my teachers took that responsibility so seriously, that decades later I can remember them still. And in a history class, it had nothing to do with the actual content, but how that content was delivered. And in Mr. Jones’ class, even if I learned nothing else, I learned not only that history was interesting, but that it could be fun.