history

sometimes, the messenger is important.

in high school, we were required to have one credit of american history, and my messenger was mrs. o’neal.  i think that the only way that american history could have been more of a snorefest for me would have been to have replaced mrs. o’neal with a cardboard cutout.  she was incredibly dry, she essentially did nothing but present information, and did so in a humorless, monotonous way.

25 years later, i feel cheated…because i’ve become something of a history buff in the time since – specifically, american history.  the civil and revolutionary wars, world war two, and twentieth century history…and specifically presidential history (i used to sit at my desk in elementary school and read the encyclopedia, and i was enamoured with JFK and the many theories surrounding his assassination..all this before my teen years).

the first time i remember nurturing the notion that i was robbed was in my early twenties when i saw the movie “teachers”, starring nick nolte.

mulliganin this movie, richard mulligan – one of my all time favorite actors, a guy whos’ sheer vocabulary of facial expressions stands head and shoulders above pretty much anyone else – plays an escaped mental patient who happens to wander into a high school on a lark and is cornered by the secretary, who thinks he’s the substitute showing up to teach history that day.  he walks into the classroom and stands around for a minute, not sure what to do until one of the students asks if they’re going to do anything…he picks up the history textbook and flips through it and then throws it out the window.

the next day, he comes in dressed as abraham lincoln, head to toe…and proceeds to pull out an envelope and recite the gettysburg address to the class.  later in the movie, you see all the desks piled into the middle of the classroom, students surrounding him as he stands atop them pretending to row…”who am i?!??!?”, he shouts.

“general washington!” they shout back, still furiously mock-rowing.

“what river are we on??!?”

“the delaware!”

they were genuinely inspired by history…thanks to this gentle, disturbed soul who was thrust upon them by happenstance…because he showed a very perceptible passion for it, and it ultimately passed itself on to them.

when the truth finally came out and the white suits came to retrieve him from the classroom, the students went nuts – they’d fallen in love with the guy.

obviously, i understand that it’s a movie, and that it’s probably not realistic to expect students to be lured into affection for history simply because a teacher connects with them through some oddball means.  i’m not denying that it happens, or that it could happen…but i also know the extent to which current circumstances render that possibility highly unlikely.  if you’re passionate about history, that’s great.  but i strongly believe that you should have a healthy respect for history, whether you’re passionate about it or not.

i remember, once, trying to explain to my kids why the beatles were such a big deal.  “they were just a band, just like all the other bands,” it went.  “why was everybody so nuts over them, with the girls screaming and all?”

and there i am, trying to somehow make sense of it to them.

you have to understand that, at the time, it wasn’t just about the music, i say.  i tell them that the unbridled fire of rock and roll had been excorcised of its biggest stars, either through death (buddy holly, et al), prison (chuck berry), religion (little richard), scandal (jerry lee lewis) or the army (elvis)…and that in their wake had come a rash of surf music and teen idols like fabian and frankie avalon and that the raw sex appeal and rebellion had all but gone out of rock and roll at that time, and that the nation was still reeling from the loss of its idealistic leader at the hands of an assassin and that the beatles hit in the epicenter of all that, at a point when the entire post-war baby boom generation was old enough to act on having discovered their naughty parts a few years earlier, and that they were the musical and cultural culmination of everything that happened and didn’t happen around them, and that the music and the public image and their ability to win people over all worked in their favor, and that they grew with their audience…blah blah blah.

they get it now.  well…i think they do, anyway.  if they don’t, it’s not for my lack of trying to explain it.

actually, i guess it could be said that they get it to the extent that someone who wasn’t there is capable of getting it.

i can watch ken burns’ epic documentary “the civil war” and be moved by it and take in the images and for a moment, perhaps convince myself that i have some perspective on all of it that, in reality, i couldn’t possibly have as a result of not being there, not having been present for all that happened leading up to, and during that time.

and…obviously, the same is true of my children and the beatles.

and then today, from the “same is true of” department:

most of you know that i do network support IT work on the side, in addition to my musical pursuits.  today, while out and about among “the common folk” in the plant, working on a wireless authentication issue, i overhear a young black man, maybe 22 or 23 years old, pontificating on how he’s sick of seeing people on TV crying and celebrating like we just elected Jesus president, and he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

i’ll say it again.

a young, black man in his early twenties doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, regarding the fact that america has just elected an african-american president…the first in the history of our country.

here’s a young man who never had to drink from a separate water fountain in public.  a young man who never had to use separate entrances to diners, restaurants, or grocery stores, who never had to work for less money for the same job as performed by an equivalent white worker.  while he most certainly deals with the modern reality that he’s significantly more likely to be stopped in traffic than a white motorist, he’s never been subjected to the kind of treatment he would take for granted at his age fifty years ago…he’s probably heard of martin luther king, jr – perhaps rosa parks.  i can’t help but wonder if he has any prior knowledge of people like emmit till, or would understand the significance of philadelphia, mississippi or selma, alabama.  you’d think that, at the very least, rodney king would ring a bell.

i didn’t say anything to him…i didn’t feel compelled to try to explain this one to him, the way i felt compelled to try and help my kids understand the significance of the beatles.  i figure that if bill cosby gets thrown under the train for trying to make points about race, then i don’t stand a chance..and that’s fine.  sometimes, people just want something to be pissed about.

i could pontificate about how urban society has poisoned the very notion of ambition to the extent that young people today not only don’t understand the historical significance of a black president, they don’t understand what could possibly posess a black man to want to be president in the first place?

there’s definitely nothin’ “gangsta” about being president.

i dunno…there’s a small part of me that wants to celebrate his attitude about the whole thing, and take it as a sign that we’ve come so far past racism in this country that a young black mans’ memory isn’t long enough to understand why it’s a big deal that a black man is president.

but somehow, i can’t help but feel that the problem with his thinking has much more troubling roots.

either way, one thing is obvious.

he didn’t have richard mulligan in history class.

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