Not Just Another History Lesson
Winner 2019 General Nonfiction Contest
Copyright 2018 by Anne Organista
Photo by Magnus Andersson on Unsplash
teacher has his or her moments of glory; those moments when students
rise above their expectations or when lesson plans go awry only to be
salvaged by a completely unexpected situation. I say this with much
candor. In all my years of teaching, many little things made me
happy, feel appreciated and loved. Nevertheless, it was this one
event in 2001 back in the Philippines, when I felt especially proud.
was an ordinary Tuesday morning and my students had settled on an
activity that would set the stage for our lesson on World War II. The
room was abuzz with discussion as I moved from one group to another,
delighted that the case study I had given had kept them engaged. A
couple of students were on the computer, a group was sprawled out on
the floor while the rest were huddled together in their seats; as if
discussing an ancient secret from the Middle Ages.
minutes later, I called the students’ attention. “All
right class, let’s see what you’ve come up with. There’s
an epidemic. The village is dying. To whom would you give the
medicine? Who gets to live?”
always told me they looked forward to the lesson on World War II the
most. With the many disturbing events happening in the country and in
the rest of the world, I was not only pressured to make this lesson
meet their expectations, but also make it as relevant to their
present reality as the latest smartphone on the market.
when a sea of hands shot up in the air at my question, I knew I had
started on the right foot. I still remember thinking this was going
to be an awesome day.
later, I had jotted down students’ answers on the board,
clearly marking each one with the number of people in the class who
had chosen the same response. Noting the three responses most
students had chosen, I asked “Why did you choose them?”
the priest can give guidance to the community after people die from
the young college graduate can teach the children in the village, and
all of them can help in rebuilding their community.
“Because the fisherman and his son can teach others their livelihood. They can
build their lives again.”
I pointed to the three responses least chosen. “All right. Why
Miss, a one-legged boy? What can he do for a dying community? He’ll
just be a burden!”
can an 85-year old grandfather contribute? He’s lived a long
life as it is.”
what I thought of the 14 year old girl. She hasn’t even
finished school. What can she do?”
the last student finished talking, I asked, “So in other words,
your choices were based on who was going to be useful. Is that
that the whole idea, Ma’am?’ a student stood up. “The
village is dying. There’s not enough medicine for all.”
agree,” another student chimed in. “We need people who
can contribute something to give the village a chance to rebuild
the noise seemed to reverberate outside the walls of my classroom.
Everyone was justifying their choices with others who had thought
differently. I was amazed at their engagement with the activity and
how they vigorously debated among themselves. Despite the noise, I
didn’t stop them. My goodness, I thought, this was every
a student cried out, “Oh my God! A plane hit the World Trade
Center in New York!”
if on cue, the noise level dropped and the room was now shrouded in
silence. We all looked at Andrea, her pale face staring at the
computer screen. I rushed towards her and with everyone peering from
behind me, we listened to the short news report. There wasn’t
much detail yet, but the video showing a plane hitting the Twin
Towers was horrific.
in the faculty room, everyone was talking about the same thing. We
followed the news and though disappointed that I hadn’t been
able to accomplish my lesson for the day, I wondered if there was a
much bigger lesson here than the one written in our history book. As
more details of the event came to light, my lesson took on a
different shape and form, far from what I could have ever imagined.
days later, I went back to my class and students barraged me with
questions from our unfinished activity.
who gets to live, Miss?”
your choices the same as ours, Miss?”
made the right choice, didn’t we?”
reviewed their choices one more time and asked them if anyone had a
change of heart since we last met. Everyone seemed to be at the edge
of their seats. Walking to the center of the room, I looked from one
student to the next and asked, “What makes the life of a
college graduate more important than the life of an 85-year old man?”
a moment pass, I slowly continued.
did you all consider the priest more important than the one-legged
boy? And what made you think the life of a fisherman and his son were
more crucial to the community than that of the 14-year old girl?”
faces stared back at me. Others seemed to be struggling with the
ideas I had just presented. Then, an unsure hand at the back of the
class caught my eye.
Miss, isn’t that the whole point of the exercise? To figure out
who can save and rebuild the community after the epidemic?”
were now murmurings around the room, each one finding strength in the
one who had taken on my challenge.
no, I didn’t say anything about saving the community,” I
replied. “You inferred that yourself. All I asked was to whom
you would give the medicine.”
you made us choose!” asserted one girl.
course I did. You could choose any one of those people or you didn’t
have to choose any one at all. That would have been equally a choice,
wouldn’t it?” I asked.
you can’t mean choosing a college graduate over the 85-year old
grandfather is wrong? I mean, he’s an old man, what can he do
for a dying village? He might even die before the village recovers.”
didn’t say it was wrong,” I stressed. “I just asked
what makes you think the life of a college graduate is more important
than the life of an 85-year old man.”
more important because he can contribute something to the village
that an 85-year old man can’t!”
also why I chose the fisherman and not the young girl. The fisherman
has a trade. He knows how to work and can teach others to do the
same. A 14-year old can’t do that.”
again, the class energy rose up. I walked back and clicked on the
computer at my table, flashing it on the screen for everyone to see.
happened the other day while we were having this discussion?” I
pointed to the screen with a picture of the plane that hit the Twin
Towers in New York. I then asked if they had read anything else about
this event. There was a tumult of voices, each one giving their own
version of the news.
from the World Trade Center, where else did the terrorists strike?”
also hit the Pentagon.”
news said the US Capitol or the White House was a target, but the
plane crashed somewhere else.”
why do you think these three places were targeted?”
they wanted to hit the US government.”
just that. They also targeted the World Trade Center. Maybe they
thought that would bring the US economy down,” a student added.
they wanted to cripple the government and its economy?” asked
responses came as students deduced what I was doing. Finally, one
student raised her hand. “Miss, they chose these places because
they’re all important landmarks!”
another exclaimed. “They thought these vicious acts could
cripple the whole country and its people.”
they won’t of course!” A voice from one end of the
classroom shouted excitedly. “Many people died, but there will
always be others to take their place and continue the fight. That’s
what history is about Miss, isn’t it? For us to continue the
legacy of our forefathers?”
that’s why even an 85-year old man can rebuild a village even
if he’s the only one left alive,” a student concluded.
“We can choose those people we think are important, like those
terrorists chose the three important landmarks in the US. But there
will always be someone who will take up the challenge of rebuilding,
whoever or whatever they are.”
class suddenly broke down in wild applause. The connection between a
simple class activity and the week’s recent events was finally
made. My history class had never felt so alive and relevant.
what’s this got to do with the Second World War?”
question elated me. Thrilled by the skills students had displayed by
their earlier conclusions, I wondered if they’d remember our
original lesson. Slowly, I pulled down the world map and pointed at
man from this country had the same frame of mind as the terrorists
who struck at the US this week. They both chose who had the right to
die and who had the right to live. If the terrorists believed they
could cripple the US to make themselves more powerful, this man
believed that the success and power of the German nation can happen
only with the white, blonde and blue-eyed race, not . . .”
. . not with an 85-year old man, a one-legged boy and a 14 year old
girl” a student completed the sentence for me.
been years since and while my other classes after that day
experienced similar feats of energy, excitement and hunger for better
understanding; no other event has brought us as close as being
witnesses to history in the making. It was this feeling of being part
of something that turned a simple World War II lesson into a deeply
emotional and dynamic study of the human spirit.
that serendipitous moment in 2001 doesn’t happen every day.
Recycling the same lesson while retaining its relevance was not an
easy task. Fortunately, I had the chance to visit the 9/11 museum in
2010. Armed with a pen and a notebook, I poured over the various
memorabilia hoping to find something I could use to give life to my
lessons. I wanted my present students to have a similar experience as
my students back then. I wanted them to understand that these people
who suffered were real, as real as they were to those who loved them.
But much to my disappointment, the numerous literature, pictures, and
artifacts spread around the museum only fed my professional
curiosity. Even the videos and testimonials failed to make any
connection. My feelings seemed divorced from any human anguish and no
matter how much I tried, there was no way I could imagine or even
fully understand their pain.
I went back home disappointed,
but carried on with my classes, and found other ways to enrich my
lessons. Life, as they say, took over. Nonetheless, I knew something
years later, I went back to the US. Not having managed to shake off
the feeling that something was missing, a visit to the 9/11 Memorial
was at the top of my list.
off the subway at Chambers Street, the new World Trade Center loomed
in the distance. The sun shone brightly that day illuminating the
majestic height of the tower even more. Inside the memorial,
mood was somber. There was a hushed silence despite the number of
people that crowded both north and south pools. Set in the footprints
of the original Twin Towers, a thirty-foot waterfall cascaded into a
center void from each pool. Each had a low protective wall where the
of the victims were inscribed.
around the pools among the crowd, I noticed lone figures with their
bowed heads in quiet reflection, or a couple or two with their hands
stretched out on the stone, as if softly caressing the person
name was etched on it for all eternity. Many times, I whispered a
prayer and asked for peace for those whose lives were
indiscriminately cut off; and comfort for those who still mourned for
years ago, my visit to the 9/11 museum was motivated by my desire to
make my history lessons as inspiring as I could. This time, though,
it was a search for some missing piece I still couldn’t fully
comprehend. Until a name inscribed on one of the walls of the south
pool called my attention.
name was Ronald L. Gamboa.
was born on April 30, 1968 in the Philippines but had since lived in
Los Angeles, California. He was a passenger on Flight 175. Like many
others, he too died on that fateful day.
never knew or ever met Mr. Gamboa. But he was from the Philippines as
I am. We spoke the same language, lived and breathed the same culture,
probably enjoyed the same traditional dishes our parents and
grandparents prepared for us. As I gazed at his smiling face on the
Name Finder made available for visitors at the memorial, I felt a
tightness in my chest. Something now clicked.
had started as an ordinary history lesson. Twelve years later, it had
become painful too.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
story list and biography
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