I am sad. I just found out via Facebook that my seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher has died. I suppose it’s not too surprising. He was 82 now. But he was truly a wonderful man. He was a tail gunner on a plane in the Korean War and then spent the rest of his life teaching history, geography, politics, economics, and all kinds of things under the umbrella of middle school social studies. He never married. His life was dedicated to his students. Over the course of his long career, he quite literally taught THOUSANDS of 12-14 year old kids.
He’d move us quickly through whatever the required course of study was and then assign us individual countries—we’d have to learn their capitals, climates, imports, exports, system of government, prominent religions, and geography. We’d have to teach our country to the rest of the class, and we’d all be tested on everyone’s countries. Then we’d all get assigned new ones, and we’d do it all over again!
He’s the reason I can still impress my children by naming any European or Central or South American capital. He’s the reason I know that Paraguay and Bolivia are the only landlocked countries in South America and that I can find places like Andorra and Lichtenstein on a map. He made me understand that the Soviet Union (which still existed then—I am old!) did not equal Russia—and that people in the various republics did not consider themselves Russian at all. He emphasized that Africa is a continent, not a country, and that to think and speak about it as one homogeneous place or culture was as idiotic as believing that Montreal and Mexico City were identical places or that everyone in Norway and Italy look alike and speak the same languages.
Sometimes the amount of things he made us memorize seemed tedious, and we would get frustrated and bored with it. “Who CARES if the capital of Hungary is Budapest or Bucharest?” someone who confused the two on a test would wail. He’d answer, “Presumably the people who live there.”
No one in our class had ever been out of the United States then. Some had never seen the ocean or even been further than a neighboring state like Ohio. But he told us that some of us would visit these places we were learning about. And that even those of us who never actually left home would still find our world impacted by things that happened in these places. In either case, we ought to know something about them. He was right. In a world that had no internet, no cell phones, no cable or satellite TV with 100s of channels, he understood how interconnected our world is. And he wanted us to understand it.
What he taught us mattered, even if we didn’t always appreciate how much it mattered at the time. To all of you who are students—you won’t like every class you take, and you won’t see the purpose of a lot of it (and some of it, you likely will never see much use for, tbh), but you will be surprised throughout your life by how much you truly did gain from the people who taught you. Make the most of what your teachers have to give you.
For those of you are teachers, THANK YOU!! Whatever you teach, THANK YOU! You may feel like you are making no difference, and there may be days that you would far prefer to strangle your students than to enlighten their minds, but they are learning. Maybe not everything you want them to learn in the way you want them to learn it it, but they will remember things. And those things will matter.
There might be a skinny girl with long brown braids and freckles in the back of the class who seems to spend as much time scribbling bad poetry in her notebook and passing notes to her friends as actually writing down ANYTHING you put on the board, but she is listening. And learning. And you’ve made a difference in her life. And someday she just might write a long internet post in your honor because she regrets not thanking you enough for what you did back when she was just a kid.