Yeah About That:
The signs were all there. It was going to be one of those days.
Gray skies with or without rain and snow felt like an extra fifteen pounds on my already aching shoulders. The to-do list grew again by five or six items I’d forgotten. Food and utensils dropped out of my hands in transfer to the sink or dishwashers. The pump at GetGo decided AFTER it had devoured my gas savings to tell me the pump was out of order.
Looking ahead, the anticipation (always the worst) of holiday insanity and responsibility made me want to strangle the next person who simply HAD to sing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” And what feels like indifference from the other denizens of my house scraped my senses like forks on a Pfaltzgraff plates.
So into my class.
We had a rather complicated “exposition” on the causes of the Great Depression to read. True to what I should have expected, one of my students demanded, “Why do we have to know about this?”
Now, I do expect this petulant question if I ever dared to do a lesson on poetry. To be fair, poetry had its place, always has. However, that place tends NOT to be my GED Prep class. Seriously, in a world of climate change, ugly politics and uglier politicians having their oligarchic agendas laid bare, and so many people struggling to not have to live in their cars and eat from dustbins, what on earth would be the point of wandering the Lake District with William Wordsworth? Even Langston Hughes gets a rough reception among my cherubs.
In years past, when I taught middle school, there was always the reasoning that “you have to do this because it’s part of my class and you have to pass my class to move on in school.” Sort of the academic equivalent of my mom’s, “Because I said so!” But these are adults who simply want a better job, a brighter future in the form of a piece of paper Society now demands for almost everything.
So back to the question. I have a small arsenal of responses to why we need to read and know our history. One look at the gutless wonders calling themselves Congress1 and their corporate masters will tell us we are reliving the early 1900s and teetering on the edge of another Great Depression. But I doubted my students could see the connections. So much does not impact their daily lives, which focuses on staying sane through thankless work, poverty, peer and media pressure to want more and hate those who have it. I could quote George Santayana2. I could draw parallels with what goes on in the world today. Or I could fall back on, “You want to pass the GED? You have to know this.”
Thank G-d for Notta Louden. She eyed the young man who posed the question.
“Why wouldn’t you want to know?” she asked.
“It don’t matter to me,” he said. “Got nothing to do with me.”
“That so?” Notta said. “Your grandparents still living?” They were. “Are they old enough to remember those years?”
“Not much. My granddad was pretty little and I don’t think Gramma was born then.”
“But they knew about it.”
He shrugged. “Probably had to learn about in school like us.”
We all laughed.
“I suppose so,” Notta agreed. “But their parents lived through it. I bet they learned a thing or two about making do when you had less than enough to get by. And they taught your grandparents those values: to rely on your own hard work, to make do and not have to have the newest and brightest and fanciest every time. To appreciate what you have and not be always running after what you think you absolutely need. Most of that comes down to what other people have convinced you that you really want, anyway. Nobody needs half the stuff these old men with their hands in your pockets say we need. Most of us don’t really want it, either. But we let people tell us we have to have it. And there goes the money – whoosh!” She saw his eyes start to glaze and changed tacks.
“You work, right? And what happens if you’re out of work and can’t make more?”
“Go on unemployment,” the young man said.
“Folks back then couldn’t. Wasn’t any such thing. What happens when you get too old or too hurt to work?”
“Social Security. Takes a hunk out of my paycheck every time. I don’t hardly get three-fourths of what I earned because of that.”
“But it’s going to be there when you are old, right?”
Notta shook her head. “Wasn’t, back when the Depression hit. People lost jobs and, if they had savings, lost that, too, because the banks had no government insurance to back their losses. And there were plenty losses after that horrible First World War. Now we have the FDIC.”
I jumped in at this point. “So many things we take as ours by right didn’t exist until this calamity in the 1930s. But we forget what it took to have Social Security, bank deposit insurance, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and a whole lot of things we assume we have and will always have. And don’t think there aren’t some who won’t try to take it away from you. There have been folks in government for at least the last 30 years who’ve been trying to do exactly that.
“The Great Depression and FDR and the New Deal may not have been 100% effective, but they all reminded us that we are in this life together. We have to look out for each other.”
“And ourselves,” he countered.
“True, but can any of us be really secure when there are other who are not?” Yes, there were eye-rolls and the “Ms. Jody is at it again” tsk-tsking going around the room. I laughed – I could laugh at this point at myself. “Folks, history is about people. Not wars, not inventions, but people. And we’re people. We have to learn from each other. Past or present, we have a lot to learn from each other. So that’s why we have to do history. We have to learn from our past.”
Notta, of course, had the last word. “It’s the folks who don’t, or who pick and choose their history to keep it all about them, that make us want to forget. They can get away with more that way. It’s our job to make sure they don’t. SO! Who wants to read first?”
1.Peter Stone via John Adams in “1776”: I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!
"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." The quote is most likely due to George Santayana, and in its original form it read, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'