History Lessons

My eleventh-grade history teacher was a man named Steven Sawyer. He was unique among my teachers; he was retiring soon, with a fully-vested pension, so he had absolutely nothing to lose. Maybe I got lucky; maybe he was usually a close-to-the-vest, straight-laced guy until that year I found myself in his class. Maybe he was always a bit of a rabble-rouser. What I do know is that he, more than almost any other teacher I’ve ever had, was an educator. He took it upon himself to teach the truth of the world to his students, even if that oftentimes took a peculiar form.

I remember one lesson on the Revolutionary War. He was trying to explain to us how a bunch of under-equipped, poorly-led farmers and slackers in the Hudson River Valley could somehow outfox the British infantry, the most professional fighting corp in the world at the time. He posed the problem to us, then fussed around at his desk for a few seconds pulling something on behind his back. We were stumped; the Yanks should’ve lost, we all figured. Then he stood up, wearing a hunting vest in blaze orange upon which he’d written, “SHOOT ME. I’M BRITISH.” Aha! As quick as lightning, we all understood how the Redcoats lost the Battle of Saratoga.

Eleventh grade started in 2001. You don’t need me to tell you what September felt like that year.

When school reopened, we all did our best to resume life as normal, but there were little changes–longer lines at the airport, American flags on every bumper, and a Ben Franklin quote that appeared on the side chalkboard in Mr. Sawyer’s room: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Over the years I’ve learned that the biggest moments never feel big when you experience them. September 11th felt like any other day where we got sent home early; 24/7 news coverage of a pile of New York rubble quickly desensitized me to the gravity of the day. Terrorism didn’t mean anything, at least not right after it happened. Now, more than a decade later, I see no shame in tearing up when I think about that morning, both for the lives lost and for the way the world changed in its wake. Which makes me even more amazed that Mr. Sawyer picked that quote to put on his board.

He never talked about the quote. He was kind, delicate even, when we first started class; other teachers were borderline mawkish, talking the Twin Towers into the ground again. As it happened, we had been in his class when the announcement about the attacks came overhead. So he looked at us–and I mean looked, taking a good long time to meet eyes with everyone in the room–and said that we would remember exactly where we sat when we heard that announcement for the rest of our lives. I was two rows from the front, first seat in the row, sitting next to Ashley Borgess and her school-renowned whale tail. Someone in class asked, “What happens next?” He pointed to the side board, waited a proper minute, then started class.

Like I said, it’s hard to know you’re in the middle of something big when it happens. A century from now, September 11th will be reduced to a single date in the history books. But we that lived it know that we’re still living it, still coming to grips with the world that came after. When Mr. Sawyer picked up the chalk, he couldn’t know what was about to happen, from two wars fought on credit against an ethereal enemy to the largest restriction of civil rights since our country’s founding, before anyone but Afghanis could pick out Kabul on a map, and before a bipartisan Congress passed the Patriot Act. When we still looked to institutions of public trust with trust. Mr. Sawyer was a smart man–one of the smartest I’ve met–but he couldn’t know all that would happen because a few assholes with guns and planes didn’t like us. Except I think he did, or at least he was smart enough to know we should be more worried about our reactions to jihad than to jihad itself. And he tried to tell us the only way he knew how: through history. 

But this isn’t really a post about September 11th; I only bring it up to bolster my assertion that Mr. Sawyer was a damn fine educator. What I really wanted to write about was something Mr. Sawyer said a few months later.

I can’t remember exactly when or why he said it; let’s just assume it was some time during February (sometimes called “Black History Month”). That’d be fitting. But it may have been January or March or any other month (“White History Months”). There must’ve been some news event which made him speak up, but I can’t imagine what. It must’ve been a first of some kind. The way they measure them–the first black president, the first female executive at a Fortune 500 company, the first legless Indonesian man to summit Kilimanjaro–there’s always firsts. Well, Mr. Sawyer hears this information, gets that same gleam in his eye as when he pointed to the side board, and tells the class, “You know, I dream of the day there are no more firsts.

But that’s all. No explanation.

I gave his words as much thought as a hormone-filled teenager can give when the girl next to him is constantly bending forward and revealing her thong. Besides, there was a certain obviousness to Mr. Sawyer’s words so that it didn’t take much thinking to get to the bottom of it. I, too, dreamed of a day when there were no firsts. We’ve made great strides in the past decade, between electing our first black president and sending the first person to the bottom of the Marianas Trench; not bad for a generation of slackers, right? Keep it up long enough, and we’ll be well on our way to an end of firsts. After all, as Tenzing Norgay and Buzz Aldrin can tell you, no one gives two shits about the second guy to do anything. I used to think, particularly because of Mr. Sawyer’s words, that we humans ought to be proud of all that we’ve managed to achieve in firsts. 

Except now, a decade later, I’m pretty sure I got it completely wrong. He wasn’t talking about spreading achievement across broader demographics; he was really trying to convince us to stop counting. There will always be an unachieved first. As of this writing, there has never been a Chinese man on the moon, a female American president, or an arm-less handball champion. Doing these things, alone, will not make the world a better place. (And before you feminists get up in arms, I ask you–what if John McCain had been elected, then died, and Sarah Palin took his job? Could you really call that an achievement? At the very least, you’d need to create am unfilled category for first competent female president.) Diversity is just an idea. It’s neither good nor bad. There’s no reason for this to become the guiding principle of our civilization, except right now it is. 

I’m passing on a lot of important questions here. If diversity isn’t worth much, what should we strive for? Hell, I don’t know. I could write volumes about achievement but never come to any conclusions. But if you ask a Mr. Sawyer, either Tom or Steven, I think he’d give you the only answer possible: It’s whatever. Strive for something. It doesn’t matter what, so long as it’s something you picked for yourself. It’s when we let other folks tell us what’s important that this whole train starts to leave the tracks. 

Of course, in another decade I may flip again and hold with my original interpretation. No matter. What does matter is that I think about it. That you think about it. See, that’s what great educators do–they make us think, about ourselves and our values and how all that fits in with the larger world.

With two sentences, Mr. Sawyer brought my entire world into question. Even more to his credit, he never tried to supply answers to my questions. He was an educator, one of the finest I’ve known, and for that I remember him here. The world could use a few more Sawyers, whether Toms or Stevens; I don’t see much difference. 

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