Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History Lesson

And so, the moment I've dreaded has come: my eighth grade students are writing research papers.

It's a painful experience, full of blonde hairs in the shower drain and nagging headaches. Sometimes I feel like the personal cheerleader of all 105 of them; on those days, my throat is hoarse by second period. The rest of the time I'm a doomsday prophet, warning them that the end (Rough!Draft!Due!Friday!) is coming and that right soon.

Don't, I remind them for the 100th time, write this paper like you're texting your BFF. I don't want '&' or 'UR' or 'cuz. I also refuse on moral grounds to read any paper that begins "My essay is about..."

When they leave the room, I clear a head-sized hole in the debris on my desk and wait for a sign.

But we press on, through hooks and transitions and thesis statements and supporting details. There are private moments of victory: A student who has rewritten his thesis statement seven times gets my blessing to move ahead. There are staggering moments of defeat: Suddenly, a girl in my fifth period gets teary-eyed when I suggest that it's probably best to mention historical facts in chronological order. What's this? I want to tell her, Tom Hanks-style: There's no crying!

After school, the students in my English-learner tutorial continue slogging through their drafts. I can help them one-on-one in this setting, so it's a slow but ultimately more rewarding process. Their topics all somehow connect to World War II: Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, the Manhattan Project, Kristallnacht. Half the struggle is getting them to understand and/or care about something that happened sixty-five years ago, before even their grandparents were born.

I shudder when one asks, "What's the big deal about an atomic bomb?"

He might not mean anything by this; eighth graders often say things just to be saying things. Witness the thirty-five voices that scream, "Telephone! Telephone!" even after I've answered. "Yes, thank you," I always say, dismissing them. But I can't dismiss this boy.

Well, it is a big deal, I say. It's an incredibly big deal. Thousands of people died instantly. Others died later, sick in all sorts of ways from the radiation. Those who survived were susceptible to cancers, leukemia, horrible tumors. Even today, nothing grows on that land.

Suddenly, I realize it's deathly quiet. The boy writing about the Treaty of Versailles is watching me. The girl who has misspelled "Kristallnacht" ten different ways in her essay has turned around completely in her seat.

"What's radiation?" someone asks.

I'm no Einstein, but I try my best.

"So, is that all the stuff in the mushroom cloud?"

Basically, yes, I tell them.

We're all quiet for a minute.

"I saw a picture online of a girl with all her skin burned off," one of the boys says, reverently.

"I don't understand it," says the Kristallnacht girl, her pencil point digging stubbornly in a hole on her desk. "Who does it help that that girl died?"

For this I don't have an answer. Or I do, but it's one of those "in the wider scope of history" answers that doesn't really explain anything.

It's 3:50 and officially time to go, but everyone lingers. The moment feels so real, that for just a second, I want to grab them by their t-shirts and tell them everything I know, every single thing, every crazy fact and bit of trivia and "book knowledge" I've been accumulating for thirty-odd years.

But instead, I smile. "See you tomorrow," I say, and with a wave, I release them.

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