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The Friday History Spiderweb

May 29, 2009

Mister History walked into the battered classroom in his suburban school and stopped.  Everything looked… different somehow.  All the same students were there, but they were dressed a little better.  They were carrying little shoulder bags with electronic readers in them, instead of piles of the approved textbooks that History hated so much. The readers were tough plastic panels about the size of a glossy magazine and almost as flexible. Three walls of the room were covered with visual aids; a layered historical time-line, major inventions, printouts of newspages.  A strange-looking projection device hung from the ceiling center.

The room was just as cluttered as usual but the atmosphere was different.  A few students were chewing gum, with no apparent concern that they might be caught.  One was sipping on a coffee! Small groups were clustered around the room.  Some were idly watching videos on their readers; one was taking notes on the tiny keyboard at the bottom of the screen.

History himself was an imposing figure – six feet tall, handsome with black glasses and thick dark hair.  He raised his rich, slightly accented voice and said;  “Good morning class!  I trust you’ve all watched the assigned video on HippoCampus this morning?”

A few hands drifted up in the air; some students repositioned themselves.  A few seemed to ignore him altogether.

“Well OK then; if you didn’t, you missed out.  It was actually pretty funny right at the end there.  Today is Friday, so you know what that means?”

A few voices clamored: “A history spiderweb!”

“That’s right, but first let’s check the roll.”  He glanced at his desktop, and two names were highlighted.  “Jimmy and LeSuan?”  One hand went up. “Oh, hello LeSuan.  Where’s your reader?”

“I think it’s broken.”

He handed the teen a pass slip.  “All right, take it by the office for a replacement after class.  Grab one of the spares and sign in, OK?”

One name went off-highlight.  From a range of options he clicked to send an “explanation-please” form requiring input from Jimmy’s parents.  In extreme cases (such as a missing student and no one could be raised), and with sign-in from the principal and a law officer, it could even give a location for the student’s reader.

“OK, first the weird story.  Every History Spiderweb begins with a weird story.”  There was a small clamor from the students, and a couple flat ‘oh, goodies”. He touched an option on his teacher’s reader; the projector highlighted a spot on the time-line.  He tossed a ball of brightly colored yarn to a student, who got up and pinned the yarn to the highlighted spot and waited.

“On 30 December, 1912, the spoiled granddaughter of a rich Illinois politician was having a party at their home in Bloomington.  Many of the children of the rich and well-connected were there.  On the big estate there were games and groups and a good time was being had by all her friends.  And her even more spoiled brother was at the party, hanging out with his buddies.”

“The young man’s name was Adlai Stevenson.  Has anyone heard that name?”

“There’s Stevenson hall at ISU,” said one girl.  “My dad works there.”

“That’s right; same guy,” said Mister History.  Well on this morning young Adlai was 12 years old – three years younger than you are now.  And he was clowning around with some of his friends and in those days, you could legally keep unlocked guns in a house with children.”

The class grew quieter at the mention of guns.  Almost all of Mister History’s weird stories ended with somebody dying, sometimes a lot of sombodies.  But still – 12 year olds at a party!

“There was a .22 rifle around, and it was rusty and nobody thought it even worked.  Adlai’s dad was a funny guy – he always thought somebody was out to get him.  But even with guns all over the house, he never taught his kids a lick of gun safety.  And Adlai and his friends were clowning around with this .22, showing off rifle “drill and presentation” techniques, and taking aim at rabbits and other kids, like it was a video game or something.”

“And when it was Adlai’s turn – nobody knows why – he aimed the rifle at his cousin Buffie Merwin, and pulled the trigger.  He shot her in the face.  He killed her with one shot.  She fell to the ground right in front of her friends.”

A boy asked; “What happened to him?”

“Well what does everyone think happened to him?  Anyone?”

The ceiling projector could throw hundreds of laser-projected images and videos around the room at once. It hummed as its rotating mirror spun inside the glass dome.  As they typed, students’ guesses appeared on the white board at the front of the room.

“The girl’s brother came back and shot him”
“He went to juvie?”
“His sister hated him.”
“Nothing. Rich kid.”
“The whole thing was covered up”
“The girls’ parents sued?”
“He was sent away to private school”

“OK, here’s what did happen.  The girl’s brother didn’t come back and shoot him.  He really didn’t get into any trouble at all.  His dad was really angry but he got over it.  The girl’s parents understood that it was an accident and were determined not to ruin any more lives over it.  The newspaper – which the family owned by the way – covered the shooting in the back pages in the most delicate possible way.”

“Young Adlai was not permitted to testify at the inquest, which found it was an accidental shooting. His sister always adored him – maybe not that year, but every other year.  He was sent away to live with relatives in Chicago and then in South Carolina for a year, and never permitted to speak of the accident again.  His parents almost succeeded in erasing it from his memory, but not from his personality.  He felt forever unworthy after that.”

“What do you think should have happened?”

No guesses appeared on the board.

“OK, now let’s light up some more history.”  He touched more items on his reader, projecting images on the time-line of young Einstein publishing his theory of relativity, Pearl Harbor, The Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bravo Test, the arms’ race, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The room was glowing with moving videos and still pictures, suspended on their parts of the 20th century layer of the time-line.  Mister History tossed out balls of yarn and directed students to connect the images – including the 1912 Pantagraph clipping about the shooting – to the Missile Crisis. The room began to look like a color-obsessed mad spider had spun its web from wall to wall.

History played the video on the timeline from October, 1962.  It was Stevenson, then 62 years old and Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, saying:

“Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?  Yes or no?  Do not wait for the translation, yes or no?

It was an electric moment.  The students watched as he stopped the video, ducking under hanging yarn and moving to the middle of the room.

“This is the same spoiled rich kid who once shot a little girl in the face and never had any consequences at all,” he said. “You know, some historians believe it was Stevenson, not Kennedy, who was really responsible for saving the world from a nuclear holocaust that year.  Same guy.”

Suddenly the school fire alarm buzzed repeatedly in the hallway, and the projector dropped all its images except for moving arrows pointing to the doors. The students made a disappointed sound and began to rise from their desks.  History said; “OK folks, that’s it, single file, take your readers with you to the assigned location shown on your screens.”  And he sighed and picked up his teacher’s model and headed for the door. 

The hallway became Albert Hestry’s apartment bedroom, and the fire alarm buzzer became his alarm clock.  As his mind cleared, he reached out and tapped the button to silence it.  He sighed, and sat up in the bed, swinging his feet over onto the cold floor.  After a moment’s thought, he concluded; it’s Friday.  He stood; his feet hurt, his knees hurt.  He needed to lose weight, he thought.  He ran his fingers through what little was left of his graying hair.

He buttered his toast and poured milk on his Cheerios.  Munching absent-mindedly, he browsed through his teacher’s edition of US History Alive, mentally mapping it to the day’s curriculum plan.  Standardized evaluation tests were only a month away, and he had to make sure the students were ready.


Categories: Education
  1. May 30, 2009 at 08:09 | #1

    To have had this when I went to school.  It might have made my time spent more interesting and my retention stronger.

  2. May 30, 2009 at 10:24 | #2

    First, thanks for the bit of history about the 12-year old Adlai; I did not know that.  I do remember the UN confrontation, watching it live and feeling the electricity emerge from the black and white screen.  Perhaps some might be surprised that it was THAT moment that taught me a huge lesson.  Growing up in an area dominated by conservatism, I was astonished that a DEMOCRAT could be both tough and brilliant.  It did not turn me into a liberal at the time, but it taught me not to be superficial.

    Second, I am struck that the real difference in terms of education policies and practices in this story was the teacher.  Notwithstanding the technology described, a good teacher could be equally effective without it.  Yet schools are organized to discourage teachers.

  3. May 31, 2009 at 09:24 | #3

    I had never heard that Adlai Stevenson story, either.

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