A History Teacher on 911

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I cannot recall the words I used to soothe my juniors on that horrible day. However, the soul-deep pain remains remarkably sharp in my emotional memory.

Vaguely I can see my son, a senior at the same high school, enter my classroom to check on his mom, the American History teacher. Seeing his face, I wanted to go to pieces.

It was later, in the local newspaper, that I discovered not only the words I shared with my students but the transforming pain they endured watching their country attacked.

(For the writer’s privacy I’ve deleted their identity)

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Night Flight

Night Flight

 “Night Flight,” an MGM drama premiered October 6, 1933 at New York’s Capitol Theater.

Star Helen Hayes presented Chum his hard-won first place trophy as a part of the evening’s program.

Read River of January.

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Buy River of January by Gail Chumbley, also available on Amazon.

Doesn’t Change Anything

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There are folks out there in America who object to the term bellicose when describing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The Texas State School Board a few years ago objected to the term “capitalism,” deeming it too loaded with negative meaning. Okay, play with terminology, putty up and pretty up the image of the past on state standards and guides, because it really makes no difference in the classroom.

Recently the College Board acquiesced to political pressure on AP US History curriculum objectives. I can understand the thinking behind this move by those who design and correct the yearly three hour exam. Those designers simply don’t need the controversy, nor do they need states to eliminate AP US from American classrooms. But the compromise actually actuates few modifications in day to day lessons, speedily delivered by harried AP teachers. Reality dictates the content of the course, and limited by time and the massive content, most are lucky to reach bellicose Ronald Reagan before the annual May exam.

The painting above depicts General Washington’s Farewell to his Officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York. The work was the creation of artist Alonzo Chappel, and commemorates a party hosted by the victorious, but solemn Washington. This same picture, over a century later, was viewed by teetotalers with dismay. Prohibitionists, concerned by the tavern setting, especially with the wine carafe and goblet resting the table simply scrubbed the image out. Easy enough. Adjust the past to fit today’s present.

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington's farewell to his officers - two scenes from George Washington's Military life

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington’s farewell to his officers – two scenes from George Washington’s Military life

Yet, resurfacing the past, doesn’t actually change anything. Alcohol played a huge role in Colonial America. It just did. In fact, with reference to the 1980’s, all an instructor has to do is produce a couple of line graphs of military spending from 1981 to 1989. Any kid can deduce the trend in military expenditures. Read a couple of speeches in class–Ike’s Farewell Address to the country for example, and students certainly understand the deafness of the Reagan Administration to General Eisenhower’s cautionary words on the perils of the military-industrial complex.

And all those critics who scorn the notion of teaching higher level thinking haven’t spent a moment working with high school students. You can’t fool these young people, they are a lot smarter than you think. Any examination at primary materials, aside from textbooks, or any other ancillary stuff reveals a truth sans any political spin.

So go ahead and bleach the course objectives. Go ahead and whitewash topics such as the genocide of Native peoples, or the insider manipulation that has torpedoed the stock market over and over. It doesn’t matter really. I always told my students that the greatest thing about American History is that we examine it, warts and all, with eyes bravely open. That’s is the source and the strength of our nation’s greatness.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January

Personal Earthquakes

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My mother worked for the US Postal Service. She went to work in the early sixties, when we were still in grade school and stayed on until her retirement at age sixty five. The woman had four kids and a house, and a yard, and she probably was pretty overwhelmed—something I now understand. To get an extra pair of hands my parents decided to house a student each term who attended a business school in Spokane called Kinman Business School. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these secretaries-in-training after completion, but these girls ended up learning shorthand, typing, and office skills like that.

The first girl who lived with us stayed in the second bedroom off the hall. I think her name was Corrine. I can’t remember exactly because it was around 1965 or 1966, and we were pretty young. Corrine was from Alaska, and I remember she was part Filipino or Native American, which I thought was pretty cool. Her hair was long, thick, dark, and she ratted up a poofy top bubble in a clip while letting the rest fall in black curls. My hair looked a lot like Ramona’s from the Beverly Cleary books, and I admired her thick tresses all the more.

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with noise, messes—people coming and going and generally a hectic backdrop of activity. But walking into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world, a world of order and gravity. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

She told me about the terrible Alaska earthquake a couple of years prior, how her house in Cordova had been damaged; and that Anchorage was split nearly in two by the tremors. Her narrative made a big impact on me because I had just read about the Alaska quake in an issue of National Geographic. Corrine lived through an event memorialized in National Geographic! Corrine was part of a bigger, unpredictable world.

There was also a picture on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me he was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. She explained to me that her boyfriend’s name, Ty, was short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon because he was in the Army and heading to a country called Vietnam. Tyrone wanted to see his girlfriend, and future wife before shipping out to Asia.

Marriage, Ty for Tyrone, Vietnam, Earthquakes . . . Corrine fascinated me.

Now my memories are a little sketchy concerning Ty’s visit to our house. I do remember he was white, an interesting contrast to her dark, exotic appearance, but he had dark hair, too. They sat on the couch in our living room and held hands which struck me as very interesting. I am sure that there were deeper emotions at play with his visit, but whatever happened fell below my 11-year-old radar. He did spend a lot of time with her in her room, with the door closed. But who knows?

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and apparently in a successful manner. Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the agreements or adult discussions, but she did return the next fall. Her room remained a wonderful respite from the cacophony of the rest of the house, and the same picture of Ty’s remained on her dresser. Letters began to arrive in the mail written on onion-skin parchment, imprinted AIR MAIL. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she told me that was the best way she and Ty could exchange letters overseas. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

And then one day Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were scandalized to see this grown man lying across her lap sobbing like his heart had broken. Poor Corrine! She too, was dissolved in tears, red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t stop, he could not compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her either. The whole scene seemed very surreal. I didn’t understand how a grown man could fly apart like that, and in front of everybody.

That episode happened a very long time ago. And it was also only yesterday.

I grew up, went to college, majored in American History and became a teacher. For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I know the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords that split the country at the 17th parallel, the Marines landing at Danang in 1965, the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968, The My Lai Massacre, the Paris Peace Accords, the protests on the home front, the bombing operations (all by name), and finally the controversy over The Wall. But in all my teaching of those facts, of all the stories from Veterans of that war, after all of the analysis by historians regarding the War in Vietnam—nothing about those years affected me as deeply as the change in that boy from Alaska, utterly destroyed by his year-long deployment when I was eleven years old.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

What If?

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My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from Tennessee  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is still  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com

I Wouldn’t Change A Thing

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One of my earliest recollections is kneeling on the cold basement floor in our Spokane house, lining up plastic Yankee infantry against an equal number of plastic Confederates. My brother would narrate the battle that was about to break loose, building up the suspense and drama that was destined to follow. But the art and beauty of the exercise was in the meticulous preparations, lines crafted and lovingly placed by my brother, an expression of his deep reverence for the past. And our fascination wasn’t limited to the basement, but rose upstairs to the rest of the house.
Our childhood dinners consisted of meals cooked for quantity, not quality, my mother bending over backward to please her crew of picky eaters. One brother only liked tomatoes, no lettuce. Another wouldn’t eat onions, and I wouldn’t eat potatoes, (I’ll get fat!). My mother should have tossed a loaf of white bread and peanut butter on the table and said to hell with us. But in truth, our dinners weren’t ever about the cuisine. That table was a place of interaction, debate and information. And we, my parents and three brothers talked about all sorts of topics; politics, swing music, classical music, FDR, and JFK. My mother knew every actor and singer ever filmed or recorded, so popular culture also had a rich review over those dry, bland hamburgers. My younger brothers typically listened and chewed, passively soaking up the banter as a normal dinner conversation.
My childhood memories are mainly a potpourri of All-American road trips. Slides of Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone Park, and Wall Drug, flash on the screen of my memory. These destinations were of such value to my folks; that they packed up a station wagon, replaced later by a truck and camper, crammed in their four noisy kids, and made many magical history tours. I especially remember standing on Calhoun Hill near Hardin, Montana, wondering how Custer missed the massive Sioux and Cheyenne encampments. Constructed in 1805 on the Pacific coast, Fort Clatsop, Oregon sheltered the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Visiting the site permitted me to physically touch this stockaded sanctuary of another time.
Wonder became permanently hotwired into my temperament.
A degree in American History came as no surprise to anyone. As in medical families, military families, or law enforcement families I followed my childhood path, nurtured in a family that treasured our nation’s history. As though I had been handed Diogenes lamp, illuminating past events became my present-day pursuit. I had to share this passion with others. This journey of discovery was not a solitary enterprise. So earning a secondary teaching certificate set my future into motion, allowing a way to disseminate the fire I felt for the past.
What a ride! I am now at the other end of my teaching career, and can honestly say that I even loved the tough days. I made a living out of being myself, constantly reinforced with a sense of liberation, and vindication. Magic happened after that tardy bell rang. And I knew then as I know now, that there was no cooler place to work than in my classroom. Who needed Hogwarts, I had Lincoln! Service projects came to life behind that door, efforts such as the Veterans Oral History Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress—fund raising for the World War Two Memorial—donations to support local history museums, and the yearly spray of flowers for the Vietnam Memorial each Memorial weekend.
And most gratifying of all was the connection students made to an earlier America. They grew beyond what they could see, feel and touch. They became more than just themselves. I can recall an essay on Richard Nixon where a girl ruled his desire to win at all costs, cost Nixon his place in history. Another student who pointed out that after Washington’s humiliation at the 1754 Battle of Fort Necessity near present-day Pittsburgh, later foreshadowed the President’s crack down on the 1794 Whiskey Rebels in the same location. The student pointed out that Washington would not be made a fool twice in the same place forty years later. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Those voila moments transcend the past to a present relevance. How Washington used his few military strengths to undermine the military strengths of the British in the Revolution. How Ho Chi Minh used those same strengths to undermine the same American efforts in Vietnam. Likewise how British violation of American trade lead the US into the War of 1812. And later how German violation of American trade lead the US into World War One. The examples are vast and instructive, processed with the same reverence and regard as my brother and his toy soldiers.
Now, in retirement, an entire archive of historic primary sources have fallen into my lap. An original story has come my way detailing a young ambitious couple who challenged the Twentieth Century and left a notable trail. I have been handed a micro-history narrative, to add to the larger picture of America. What an unexpected gift for this history addict!
Writing River of January has fed my soul. It turns out that Chum, my main character, rubbed shoulders with aviators Howard Hughes, and Amelia Earhart, and even actress Kathryn Hepburn. And from his words and records, he barely took notice of their celebrity. Helen, the other main character, knew “Red Hot Mama,” Sophie Tucker, the dashing Frenchman Maurice Chevalier, and a very young Humphrey Bogart in his first film. Those people were her peers and she rolled with that crowd on an equal footing.
This story grips my heart. I’ve was groomed from my parents dinner table to craft such a book. This Saturday missive is perhaps my long overdue expression of gratitude. I am thankful for my hardwired passion for earlier times, and how vital a role the past eternally plays. I am grateful that I value ideals, ideas and vibrant lives over material possessions . . . I will never be poor. I thank the Lord my heart is enriched by remembering what came before.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the creative non-fiction work, River of January

AP History: Learning to Think

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My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. We are lucky to have such a friend because this guy is an IT guru as well as a great neighbor. Sitting around the table, waiting for some curative program to upload, we got to talking about all the world’s problems. Soon enough the discussion moved to kids and education. Frustrated, he had just left a math position at an alternative high school, while I had just retired after a long career in public schools. We found we agreed on many, many points. In particular he still felt exasperated by the constant refrain of, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it?

Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the ranks of complainers, because math was not, and has never been my strong suit. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about this age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about math at all. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and replied, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to use steps to problem solve.”

And that, in my humble opinion, is the essential purpose of educating young people in all academic disciplines.

I spent over half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. This accelerated teaching assignment changed my approach and my philosophy of education almost at once. Rather than pontificating a fountain of facts to eager little test takers, I instead became a trainer of thinkers.

Embracing a new sense of purpose, classroom instruction no longer meant listing chronologies of events and dates, (though these have a place in coursework) but on how to synthesis those facts into a broader, deeper, meaning. Students were required to sort through diverse pieces of information, measuring facts into a larger coherent idea, a political viewpoint, an economic trend, or an emerging social movement. Let me illustrate.

In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, and James K. Polk. Jefferson doubled the size of America in 1803, while Polk stretched the nation to the Pacific coast by 1848.

With a line down the middle of a piece of paper, students listed every fact concerning both presidential policies. Next they examined those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France . . . Lewis and Clark Expedition . . . War with Mexico . . . land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession . . . opening of California, the Oregon Territory, etc . . . With all that listing and sorting of facts, the students drew conclusions from the historic record.

If done properly learners were able to make some solid observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated real estate deal with France, versus Polk’s use of military options with Mexico. In this exercise students also developed a competent writing style, finding a distinctive voice while crafting their conclusions. A literary flair.

Eventually, kids would find both presidents wanted the same thing—western land. But they realized Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful, or more principled, and France was too powerful to provoke, while later President Polk cast aside negotiations, opting for war against a weaker foe, (or something like that).

The art of teaching critical thinking, and expository writing, takes lots of discipline, dedication and tons of practice. And to be honest, some kids simply weren’t willing to take that risk, resistant to pushing themselves that hard in coursework. Some parents balked, believing that teachers shouldn’t ask so much of their young ones, and GPA’s were too valuable to risk with such a tough course. I understood the hesitation; critical thinking is an acquired skill.

And I, too, often worried and stewed over my students’ progress, often perceiving poor performance as a personal failure. I sometimes considered lowering my standards so everyone would get an “A,” and I would be their favorite teacher.
There were many tears throughout the year, a fair share of grumbling and resentment to the rigorous workload. Still, by June the majority of my students had persevered, growing exponentially as thinkers. They had bravely risked a relentless “boot camp” type of course, and prevailed.

To drive home their personal achievements, I’d ask the kids to read some of their first essays from fall, and compare the writing to pieces of more recent efforts. These students were pretty proud of themselves, satisfied they were prepared to take on the world. From the beginning of the year to the end, these young people never realized how accomplished they could, and eventually did become.

The point is that, we, as teachers, and also as parents, must expect more from our kids beyond showing up to class, and staying awake. How can young people hope to stretch themselves and mature without expectations and guidance to reach those aspirations? They cannot. Frankly, if we expect nothing from our students in the classroom, that is what we’ll get, nothing.

I was, in reality, teaching the same thing as my friend, the Algebra teacher. We were both trying to show our students how to independently process information and formulate thoughtful responses.

Teaching students to think is a demanding commitment to sustain each day. Risking the chance of failure is an unattractive proposition to students, and parents bent on preserving that 4.0 GPA. As one student honestly quipped to a colleague “Tell me what I need to know to pass the test. I’ll learn to think later.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January