I had the same teacher for both of my high school history classes. She was a very sweet woman who was quite good to me, but if it had been up to her I would have hated history forever. I did well in her class, even winning the medal for best student twice. Nonetheless it was literally a trial to sit in her classroom each day. She had a systematic routine that I remember with horror to this very moment.
She gave us a reading assignment each evening and we had to return the next day ready to answer questions. She kept a deck of index cards on which our names were neatly printed. She bound the cards with a thick rubber band which she ceremoniously rolled up her arm as she prepared to quiz us on the required reading. I can still feel the silent tension in the classroom as she took the name cards out of her desk, removed the rubber band, shuffled the stack, selected a card and then named the “lucky” student who had to answer the first question. It felt as though we were engaged in a whole group game of Russian roulette.
I suppose it never really dawned on her that by calling the name of the victim before asking the question, the rest of us were let off the hook for at least the next few minutes while our classmate sat dazed and confused . We only regretted not getting the first call if the question ended up being easy. Otherwise we gleefully sat thinking “better you than me”as the sweating victim attempted to fake his or her way through a response. At least the terror was over once one had a turn because she never returned a card to the pile for a possible second question. I suppose most of us let our minds wander into our own little worlds whenever our interrogation was over. The intensity of the questioning usually lasted for the entire class for the unfortunate souls whose cards remained in the deck.
I may be wrong but I don’t ever recall hearing a lecture from that teacher. We might just as well have gathered at someone’s home with snacks and music playing in the background to teach each other the important events and people of history without her. Instead we were treated to an intimidating cross examination five days a week. It’s a miracle that any of us ever again thought of learning history as something wonderful.
It was not until I entered college and came across a history professor whose teaching style was 20% acting, 30% storytelling and 50% providing us with truths that we had never before heard. He was so good that we groaned in unison whenever it was time for the class to end. He usually stopped each lecture with a cliffhanger pronouncement that prompted us to disregard spoiler alerts and research the topic before we would see him again. He was masterful at making history our story. Even kings and potentates became so real, so human under his cunning way of presenting information about them. We devoured his every word and then supplemented what we had heard from him by happily reading his assignments with an enthusiasm usually reserved for thriller.
From that moment forward I have been an enthusiastic fan of historical movies, texts and lectures. I have a tendency to become addicted to a particular era or individual before I move on to the next topic. I drown myself in every bit of information that I might find. So a while back I became fascinated with the Romanovs, a family whose ruling dynasty lasted for 300 years. While the early rulers were certainly interesting, it was the final Romanov, Czar Nicholas, who captured my imagination.
I suppose that he thought that a three hundred year run would never end, even as he struggled to hold together the reins of power. He was a naive and privileged man who had few of the necessary qualities of a great leader. His flaws coupled with tragic world events led to the downfall of a once great and respected family hold on Russia. Ultimately it led to a revolution that would redefine the country for a century and end with the murderous killing of Nicholas and his entire family.
I’m one of those history students who insists on attempting to understand the psychology and sociology of what separates great leaders from poor ones. I try to determine in hindsight what went wrong and what might have been right. It’s almost a forensic method of looking at history. So in reading about Nicholas I found myself wanting to warn him to be more honest and compassionate with his people. I would have insisted that he understand that forces were moving to take away his power. He was paying attention to all the wrong things and allowing terrible influences to determine his thinking. It was like being part of a horror scene in which I was the only one who knew the tragic ending, but was not able to speak even a tiny bit of advice.
I’ll be learning even more about the last of the Romanovs in my latest continuing education course at the Glasscock School at Rice University. I am certain that Professor Boyd, a learned man whose way of teaching history is legendary, will pique my interest from the first moment. Perhaps I will understand Nicholas better than ever, but never be able to change the terrible ending.
Learning history has become my favorite pastime. There is so much of it that I should be able to entertain myself for the rest of my days. Luckily there will be no quizzes or moments of stone cold terror ruining the joy of learning. Instead it will be pleasurable, informative and exciting just the way it always should be.