History On One Foot, 2003

I’m standing on one foot; leg quivering slightly, the sweat is no longer just in my pits, it’s a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We are moving towards Sherman, the scorched earth policy, total war, weeks later we’ll compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always start with psychology, especially with this class, my basic section. When friends ask what I teach, I reply, United States History, AP, College Track, Basic. Basic basically means that the students show up, sometimes stoned, sometimes with weapons (knives, brass knuckles, that kind of stuff), rarely focused, a few barely literate. Raymond is also sweating, we’re 20 minutes into class, his leg looks wobbly. Raymond is the center for the football team; he keeps coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, they’re all systemized, stigmatized; I’m the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. He’s a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. I bet you put your foot down before me, I say when he comes in late. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we’re in this one-foot thing together. Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what? says Patricia. I hop over towards Brian who has his hand up. People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up, he says. How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself? I ask. No one says they could do it, they’ve almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we’re all in the moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. There are no rules in war, Phil says. So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses? I ask. Phil starts to squirm. No, no, there should be rules against thatBut why? I counter. 35 minutes into class and Raymond is puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally puts his foot down, gives me a grin, sits at his desk. My face is dripping sweat, I jump over, shake his hand, please don’t be late againI won’t, he says. I stay on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rings, they walk out still debating, I hear one of them say, violence isn’t the answer.

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