Poetry Friday: The History Teacher by Billy Collins

Poetry Friday is hosted by Katie @ The Logonauts


There is no television up here at the farm, and our internet service is spotty and slow, even so, there was no avoiding the terrible news of the week: Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and five police officers whose names we are still learning.  Gun violence. Police brutality. #BlackLivesMatter. Politicians who speak in racist tongues and do nothing to act to stem the violence, to lead us to a better place.

This morning, I read two blog posts that gave me, both a sense of hope as well as resolve: I am an educator, there are steps I can take (even though they may be just within the four walls of my classroom) to move my students into thinking about that better place. Jessica Lifshitz wrote “Sharing Stories Is Something We Can Do”, in which she said:

But we who educate children, we have NO RIGHT to say that we don’t know what to do. Because we do. We might be scared to do it. We might be uncertain of how to do it. We might feel uncomfortable doing it. But we know what we can do.

We can do better. We can teach our children to do better. We can have conversations about race. We can share stories of others who have experienced racism. We can stop pretending that these are not our issues to discuss.

Even as the wisdom in Jess’ post was rattling around in my brain, I discovered another piece by Chris Lehmann, “For White Teachers In The Time Of #BlackLivesMatter”in which he shares some practical advice about what we, as teachers, have a moral obligation to address in our individual classrooms:

These issues come into our classrooms, whether we acknowledge them or not. And as Pia Martin (among others) reminds us, there is no such thing as passive anti-racism. We, as white teachers, do not have the luxury of pretending the world doesn’t impact our classroom and our students. Whether we choose to directly deal with the issue in our classrooms or not, we have a moral obligation to be caring and thoughtful in our classrooms – especially to those who may be experiencing trauma due to these events.

I teach history in addition to reading and writing workshop, and I know that opening up my classroom to stories and discussions about current events and their historical contexts so that students can think about, read about and write about these disturbing events, can often be dangerous.  I have had parents call my administrators to complain, and I have had to justify these conversations, explain their contexts, and stand my ground. It is not easy for me, a tenured and veteran teacher of many years.  I can imagine how impossible it would be for a young teacher, not yet tethered to the security of tenure, to think about venturing out into these dangerous waters.  And yet, he or she must, we all must.

And so, as I mull over  these dark and complicated thoughts this Poetry Friday, I turn to Billy Collins and his wry and true poem:

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Being part of the solution begins in our classrooms.




12 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: The History Teacher by Billy Collins

  1. We are all a part of this world, and none of us can step back and say that what’s going on doesn’t happen in our neighborhood. We need to shine a light into the darkness or it will engulf us all.

  2. As Oscar Hammerstein said in South Pacific, “You need to be carefully taught to hate”. I do think there is a place inside the safety of a classroom to discuss these issues. I am sorry to hear that parents complained about these discussion. This is why I am a staunch supporter of tenure for teachers. Otherwise they always live with the threat of losing their jobs for HORRORS – teaching!

  3. We must continue to teach, and I am not surprised that you stand your ground, but am sad that parents complained, I hope in just a query of wanting an answer. I just got “Lies My Teacher Told Me” & am wanting to start it soon. The poem is new to me, wow. Billy Collins gets it right every time. Thanks, Tara.

  4. I’ll never forget the day I walked into my school, a day after Obama was declared President, to the extreme silence pervading the building. The all-white teaching staff and administration was unwilling to “celebrate” our new president. I was horrified. I “celebrated” with my ENL students who, of course, were mostly not white and were very excited about the new Presidential image. There was not a mention, the entire day, of having a new President of the United States. For me, it was one of the most shameful days in my 23 years of teaching there.

  5. Tara, this is a perfect, uplifting post. Yes, we do know what to do, even in the primary grades when perhaps we don’t discuss events directly but we make caring acknowledgments that will be heard by the children who may be experiencing them quite directly. Yours is the best application of the “stand your ground” concept that I’ve heard, and Billy’s poem is a deft reminder of what ignorance creates in a nation that that lies to its children, with whatever good intention.

  6. Tara, this post really hit a nerve. One of the hardest things to do is to walk that fine line between protecting children (“they can’t handle the truth”) and providing them with the truth so that they can learn to evaluate and negotiate their paths in life. This is a very powerful example. Thank you.

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