58: History in Our Hands

58: History in Our Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

History in Our Hands

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.

~Pearl S. Buck

The bullet hole seemed too small, as though it went about the lethal business of warfare without much of a fuss. Despite its size, it had pierced the helmet I held in my hand and killed the boy who wore it. I knew his name and what he looked like. I knew that he was only eighteen years old when he died because I held in my other hand the photo ID badge that was taken from this German soldier as a souvenir, along with the helmet.

At fourteen, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that someone would make a choice to take these things and dehumanize a young man who became an unidentified body to whoever found him. I couldn’t imagine the injustice to his mother never being certain of her son’s fate for the sake of a souvenir, or that a young girl, half a world away and many decades later, would learn what his mother never had.

I knew of certain horrors of war, but I had never heard of taking mementos from the men you killed. This was a common practice by both sides during the world wars, and my History teacher’s uncle was no different from any other soldier. He took these things from the war, and they made history come alive for my ninth grade History class.

These were not relics locked behind museum glass, where they would make war seem somehow mythical, like it didn’t really happen to flesh and blood soldiers. Holding these things in our hands proved the war happened, that teenagers were killed, that they wouldn’t live the lives that we looked forward to. Holding these things helped us to think about history as a means to save us from ourselves rather than just regurgitating a rote list of facts.

Before ninth grade, we viewed History class as something to endure. We had so little available to us that mattered historically in our south Texas town. The old courthouse, a once cherished piece of architecture visited by presidents and state leaders, stood rotting on the bay front. Why would students value history if we saw no evidence of it in our lives? Our teacher understood this and began our year by showing us historical photos of our town as well as current photos he took in the exact same locations. He spent days perfecting these shots to provide us with something beyond our required curriculum. He wanted us to understand that history belonged to us, that we could touch it, see it, and evolve with it.

Our teacher also brought things for us from each period we studied, all things from his own family, making post–Civil War American history meaningful to us. Chapters became more than facts and numbers. They became stories populated by humans and, as the year wore on, we realized that history was also populated by those we knew and loved.

The Vietnam War touched most of our homes. We were born as the war ended, but our fathers had served, and we knew their stories — at least those they were willing to tell. Our teacher brought his draft card and explained the system to us. We were fourteen years old, and in just four short years, this could be our story, too. He passed around his high school yearbook, and we enjoyed seeing a teenage version of our teacher in a yearbook for our same high school. He had walked our halls as a kid, had friends and girlfriends here. He was just like us. As we continued looking at the yearbook, however, we noticed that some boys were circled. These were the boys in his class who had died in Vietnam.

“Did you know all of them?” we asked.

“Yes. Like you, I had gone to school with them since I was a kid. Look around the room and imagine that some of your pictures will be circled in four or five years.”

We couldn’t look at each other. We lived in a military town, and the weight of that statement left us silent. I thought about the young German soldier whose helmet I had held in my hands earlier in the year. I wondered if these circled boys came home with all their belongings or if their things were taken as souvenirs by unknown soldiers in Vietnam. The bell rang a moment later, marking the end of another day of real learning.

Our teacher never indicated any political point of view. He simply humanized history, made us care about it, and inspired us to ask questions or research history on our own. We were squirmy freshmen in every other class, but he never once had to ask us to be quiet or pay attention in his. He didn’t have to. We didn’t want to miss a thing.

~Tanya Estes

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