Saturday, January 26, 2013

History Lessons

Sometimes learning creeps up on us, taps us on the shoulder, and slowly envelopes us. Some lessons are learned this way, like warm blankets of understanding. Then there are those that are the sledgehammers of learning: the ones that we usually recognize only just as or just after we are slammed upside the head. And some lessons we somehow have simply assimilated, not knowing the how or when, but knowing nonetheless.

This week I attended a Board of Education meeting in the small city where I live. I listened to one Board member comment on nearly every issue. That he commandeered every discussion and domineered other Board members was rough enough. What made his diatribes worse, though, were his too-frequent references to the time he's served on the Board, how things used to be done, what happened ten years ago...and all the concomitant emotions, misjudgments, and failures to recognize progress that are associated with one who uses history only to form opinions and make decisions.

The next day, driving home from school, I was still processing the experience. And from some deep recess, I realized that I knew something that that guy hadn't ever learned: despite what everyone says, starting with Edmund Burke and then George Santayana, history just may be irrelevant. Maybe it's more that history must be kept in context, as History (capitalization intended), the facts and the what-happened.

But does history have bearing on what is happening now, besides its power to inform? I don't think so. I think of raising my daughters as they entered their teen years and then headed to college. Those were the years during which I made my parents' lives pretty much hell. I was scared beyond belief that my kids would do what I did (and what I didn't). But I let them be, for the most part. Because what I knew about the possibilities and probabilities, based on my history, was balanced by, often eclipsed by, what I currently knew about them.

I approach the kids in my classroom the same way. I learn little about them, intentionally, before they get to me. I stress that every day is a new day. Misbehave on Tuesday; expect a fresh start on Wednesday (or maybe even later in the class period on Tuesday). Your brother was brilliant at grammar; I don't expect you to be, too, nor do I expect you not to be. And most definitely, what kinds of kids sat in my classroom or what happened in my classroom ten years ago is irrelevant, crazily out-of-date, not worth a mention.

It's a lesson I hope to pass on to my children, my students, my colleagues. Does that make it history?

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