Learning History

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As an elementary school teacher, I like the curriculum. I like teaching reading, helping kids discover the magic of literature. I like the precision of math, the wonder of science.

But I've never liked teaching history. It seems so dull.

February is Black History Month in schools. That didn't exist when I was a kid. So preparing February lesson plans after school, I leafed through history books. I came across the photo of Amelia Boynton. A young woman in 1965, she was part of a peaceful attempt to cross a bridge during the Selma to Montgomery march. Savagely beaten with clubs by Alabama State Troopers, in the picture, she is near death, unconscious on the ground.

I turned the pages and found another iconic photo. African-American high school students, grimacing in agony, blasted with fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama. Another page, another photo: African-Americans attacked by police dogs.

I sat in the empty classroom and stared at the photos, so deeply disgusted by the brutality, I could hardly breathe. I can't teach this, I thought, it's too horrible. The kids will have nightmares. In fact, I might have nightmares.


Then it dawned on me -- history is often nightmarish. Sometimes history is so disturbing it's difficult to learn it. It's even difficult to teach. But maybe, the worst thing about history is not learning from it.

So, finding inspiration in my outrage, I planned my lessons. My students will learn what happened at Selma and in Birmingham. And during Black History Month, I hope they will be as moved as I was by this courageous time in our country, how despite the most daunting odds and brutality, the struggle for civil rights has come so far. And still has such a long way to go.

I hope learning this cruel history doesn't give my students nightmares. I hope instead it gives them dreams, like Martin Luther King, of a world where no one will be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This February, history will be my favorite subject to teach. And, by learning it, maybe someday my students will help make injustice itself... history.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at the Robert Louis Stevenson School in San Francisco.