Tuesday, September 7, 2010
A TALE OF TWO TEACHERS
Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to I.N.K.! Here’s hoping that the sundry teachers, kids, and kids’ families amongst you had some fun in the sun and have your new back-to-school outfits at the ready. I imagine that as usual, you’ve come up with one version or another of “What I did on My Summer Vacation,” so with that in mind, I thought I’d tell you a true story about telling true stories.
Once upon a time when I was a brand new freshman in college, I bought about a ton of required textbooks and trudged off to my first class with the heaviest book of all in tow—an ugly foreboding colorless behemoth with tiny type that included everything but the kitchen sink about the History of Western Civilization.
The class was not an elective, the auditorium was as noisy as an an echo-chamber, and there must have been 200 students perched on the screechy folding chairs. Finally, in walked a little old white-haired lady. We could barely see her face peering over the top of the podium, and I’m sure all 200 students were groaning inside. Until she began to speak.
As it turns out, this wasn’t just any dried up dull-as-dishwater little old lady. This professor was spellbinding. She really was. A magician with words, she told us lively tales about her adventures at archeological digs in Crete, and we rode her magic carpet to deepest Africa, where she had unearthed an ancient human femur or two and helped (slowly but dramatically) to uncover some mysteries about our past.
Leaving no other stone unturned either, she revealed plenty of juicy, gossipy stories about the sex scandals and treachery surrounding all those famous people we were required to study. She got us all riled up about history and the unforgettable dramas it can brew. She made us howl with laughter. She made us think. We couldn’t wait to go to class--and we hardly ever had to open that heavy but comparatively useless textbook. In the end, everyone got good grades in her class simply because we remembered with great clarity every single tale she had to unfold. It was her great stories that held us in thrall, and not one of them came from a textbook.
But this story isn’t over. I returned for my sophomore year excited about my history class and all psyched to hear a great story or three. The feeling didn’t last, though, not even for a minute. This time, our teacher was a bored and boring grad student who had no use for undergraduates and no apparent passion about history either. The very first thing she did when we walked into the room was to call the roll, which took about 15 minutes. Then she told us to be quiet. Then she wrote down an outline on the blackboard (which was far, far away). It said something like this:
I. PELOPONNESIAN WAR
A. 431-404 B.C.
Phase 1- Archidamian War
Etc. etc. etc.
Then she gave us a long list of terms to memorize, told us to read the textbook during the remainder of the class, said there would be a quiz on the material next time, and informed us that we could write only with a pen. My mid-term grade in that class was a C, the only one I ever got in college. The grad student/teacher wrote on my first test that this was college, that C’s were unacceptable, and that I was obviously never going to be a history student.
I still think about my inspirational first teacher every time I write another book about history. By following her example and using my storyteller voice, I aim to put flesh on the bare bones of history and bring its people to life. And I try to do what she did so well by injecting every bit of the excitement and adventure and intrigue that makes a true story live again.
Lists on a blackboard do not inspire learning. Textbooks are barely readable. But you can’t put down a great teacher--or a great book.
If dramatic or funny or sad, 100% true stories can turn kids on to the past and teach a thing or three while everyone's having fun, we’re on a roll. The best teachers and the best books can do just that. Our relatively impersonal, humorless, and sanitized textbooks cannot. And even the web’s information overload—so often out of context and inaccurate—simply can’t tell a gripping, memorable story and can’t introduce its heroes and villains up close and personal.
So nonfiction people, I’m just sayin.’
Nobody ever fell in love with a textbook, but every day, zillions of people fall in love with story books and with the people inside their pages. Sometimes they even sleep with a book under their pillow. (Dare I tell you that the biggest compliment I ever got was finding out that a kid slept with one of my nonfiction books under his pillow for an entire year?) So.... What if this year, kids could read great stories in school--and they were true stories to boot? Well, maybe they could learn just about anything, and it would all be pain-free.