(National Poetry Month, Day 3)

It’s the height of dissertation season. This week, I’m having the enlightening experience of editing dissertations by two history teachers. Reviewing their dissertations is reminding me of the importance of teaching; it’s really an honor and a sacred responsibility to guide students to greater knowledge and understanding.

When I was younger (and even more foolish than I am now), I thought that history teachers had a really easy job: all they had to do was tell stories, after all! But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the job of a history teacher is very challenging. Those who teach history must be good storytellers, that’s for certain. But they also must inspire students to interpret the stories, and not just for fun! By interpreting the significance of historical events and listening to hitherto silenced voices, we can make changes that will lead to a brighter future. Inspiring students to build a more peaceful world, and giving them the analytical tools to plan for the necessary changes, are the driving forces behind history teachers’ work.

So, today, I salute you, history teachers! On this third day of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share this poem by Billy Collins, whom I had the good fortune to meet at a poetry reading at Caldwell College when I was an undergraduate student there.

May no history teacher be like Collins’ title character—ever! I know that none of mine was, and I am much better for it.

The History Teacher

by Billy Collins

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.

Billy Collins

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