Thursday, December 19, 2013

History: A lie agreed upon

My grasp of history might be different from yours. We all approach these things from, I think, a unique and not totally pragmatic perspective. Our take on human history will be colored by what we discover, coupled with the stories we've heard since infancy.

Much depends on our cultural experience.

Many of my cultural experiences took place in a car, when the parents would drive us wee kids and our sleeping bags, transport us in the back of a green '65 Rambler station wagon to the local drive-in.

As these were events of an educational nature, there was nothing fun nor remotely salacious promised. I.e, no James Bond; no popcorn. We were not on a pleasure trip.

We arrived at the Thunderbird Drive-In, all work, no play; to learn, history and literature. But mostly history, because Dad liked epic cinematic sweeps. And if we weren't prepared to learn, then we could just pipe down, stop cackling, or he'd turn this car around, and is that what we wanted, is that what we really wanted, because if we kept on this way, well, don't ask him twice, because he'd do it in a heartbeat, just try him. Go on, just one more word.

We decided to learn.

And some lessons have stayed with me all through life. The 60's cinematic epics taught me:

That during any significant period in human history -- the 20th C Arab uprising, WWI, WWII, or the Russian revolution -- Alec Guinness would be there, every step of the way, to bear witness. In some strange accent that one can only describe as Guinness-stan.

That everyone, from the beginning of time, all civilizations, spoke a common language, and that language was English, though with various results. Like, someone could live next door to a Russian, and the Russian would sound German and the neighbor, Italian; and the Polish brother would be Irish and the Irish brother from Cleveland. And the Arabs, don't get me started.

Plus, if Omar Sharif starred as the hero in and as anything -- a Mongol, Russian, German, or Swede -- don't get your hopes up, he's toast.

So, my grasp of international history is, well, wanting. Wanting for something other than David Lean.

In middle school, I had a history teacher, who was actually the boys' gym coach. I mean, he doubled as our history teacher; the real one was on sick leave. The school must have been desperate, because Mr. Burleigh seemed rather out of his element, talking about Sow-Doo Arabia, and such.

But I liked Mr. Burleigh, and he liked me. He knew me, through the gymnastics team. He never called me Karin, but Miss BOO-gay. And I rather liked that.

In history class, one day he unfurled a map of eastern Europe and touched the map with one of those pointy sticks, "This is the Soviet Union. Who is prepared to talk about it?" Because he obviously wasn't.

And Mr. Burleigh was sweating some, and had pushed his shirt sleeves up, exposing his muscular forearms.

Some in the class giggled.

I couldn't let them humiliate Mr. Burleigh. So I stood up and said, "Well, actually, Mr. Burleigh, I have a good story to share, and it starts before the Russian Revolution..." I talked for 40 minutes, about the Reds and the Whites, through a filter of Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and whatever I could remember through a second filter, the Rambler, a few years back.

It went over well. And the bell rang.

"Thank you, Miss BOO-gay," said Mr. Burleigh. "Today, we learned something,"

I could only think we hadn't, much; except, maybe, how to be a friend.


  1. This gibes with so many of my experiences: the Rambler (that could jump start any car on our block in Michigan when all others were dead), Thunderbird drive in (thought they were all in the south!) and the English speaking cast of every war movie Dad took us too. Only my recollection is not as well written as your's! Inspiring, and a little tear jerking here in NYC

  2. This is very dear to my heart.

  3. You are so right about us all having different perspectives based on our exposures to the world. Speaking of history teachers. Many kids hated history class with a passion. If you have a good history teacher, it's the best and most interesting class. Too bad most history teachers suck at it. Dates and names and not much else.

  4. Somehow, I think, Mr. Burleigh knew you were his wing man! Funny how we all have that teacher.. Mine was Ms. Bradshaw- great lit. teacher who opened my eyes to every great black writer!.

  5. "This was not a pleasure trip." Love it. Great story.

    The only drive-in movie I remember seeing with my parents, although there must have been more, was "Some Like it Hot." "Well, nobody's perfect!"

  6. What a wonderful memory, Ms. BOO-gay! I've often remarked on how most cultures seem to share a common British accent when depicted on film - even the aliens on Star Trek. Fascinating!

  7. I remember being in PJ's and spending time on the swingset, which seemed like a really fun thing to do. Im sure Mr Burleigh would have rather been at the drive-in, PJ's or none, that day.

    As for authenticity, I'm pretty sure that what most of what people believe about the Bible comes from the movies and great art. You know, that a guy from the Middle East looks like a British Lord and always seems to talk like one. I must admit though, I do like to go back and rewatch some of those epics - The Bridge on the River Kwai (with Alec Guinness) is the latest - from time to time especially Lawrence of Arabia (with Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal) which, for me, still holds up - but that may be because I think Peter O'Toole could do no wrong.

  8. Ours was a Chevy wagon, and I played on the swingset in my PJs, just like Paula. I liked my high school Physics teacher, Herbie Perlman, who drove a purple Gremlin and fought his 3 year old for the cereal box toys which he used to demonstrate the principles of Physics.

    When my boys were small, we used to take them to the drive-in; they'd fall asleep in the back seat of my Cadillac with their Happy Meals. They were 3, 2 and 1, so it was really easy; the running car would lull them to sleep.

  9. I remember drive-ins as a child, mostly sleeping through movies. But horror movies, Vincent Price.

  10. We had good history teachers in high school. Two young men who team-taught a huge theater full of kids. Because they were funny and made it like a buddy movie, we listened.

  11. I remember piling into the trunk and sneaking in. Boy, those owners were a bit on the dumb side. Oh, drive-ins showed movies too? Imagine that.

  12. Yeah, if the movie was just too boring, we'd watch the couple in the next car make out.

  13. You were on to something. Mr. Burleigh could have interrupted you at any time, but he kept on listening, and the class along with him.

    Nice to be back in the world. Great writing, as usual.

  14. I took Government in summer school between my Jr and Sr year...Mr Grant was able to teach each theory of government in such a way that we were believing he was what he was teaching...and created lot's of discussion after class!!!

    Todd Thompson was one of the football coaches...and I think Waterpolo too...he taught also had to teach math..back in the day when all you needed was a general credential to teach any subject. I saw him long after college and he admitted to having to study each chapter of Math in order to chapter at a time!!! He actually did great!

  15. Hollywood has a propensity for showing history in the bias of the moment... relying on Hollywood for historical truths... not the best idea!!!

  16. When I was a kid there were not drive-in movies in São Paulo (and São Paulo has always been cosmopolitan and the largest city in Brazil). Drive-in movies was never been popular in Brazilian culture. Presently there is only one drive-in movie in Brazil, it is situated in Brasília, the capital of Brazil.
    Btw, I loved history class.
    Great post as always, Karin.

  17. I wish I could've been in that class listening to your version of East European history. The kids must've been mesmerized, right along with Mr. Burleigh.

  18. What a wonderful post! I work with a woman who knows world history through the movies....

  19. My favorite history class was in a basement under a sewing factory near the top of Lake. Teacher stood behind bullet proof glass and passed dated text books through a slot. No one was in control - but I did make friends with the inmates.

  20. Most teachers need and deserve such a kind gesture, I suspect.