I was about 20 years old, on a break from college and sleeping late in my old bed in the room where I grew up. The President of the United States was in town that morning. In fact, he was to deliver a speech on the campus of the university that was located less than a mile from my parents’ house. When I awoke that day, it occurred to me that a short late-morning walk would allow me to see a real live president – something I had never experienced before.
I arrived on the university quadrangle where the president’s speech was already underway and saw that the crowd of people in attendance completely filled the immediate area. I was not going to be able to get within 200 feet or so of the dais, and I wanted a better view than that. So I reached up and grabbed the branch of a nearby tree to pull myself up to a better vantage point. I had barely put my weight on the lowest branch of this tree when a man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
He was dressed in a dark blue polyester suit, with sunglasses and an earpiece, and bulges under his jacket that made me think I was better off not finding out what exactly was under that coat. He said to me, “If you don’t get out of that tree, you’ll be shot out of it.”
I thought, just for an instant, of mentioning the name of Zacchaeus, the man in Jericho who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus as he passed through town (according to Luke 19:1-10). I was sure our born-again Christian president would have appreciated the reference. But I had a powerful feeling that the man in the polyester suit was not going to give me credit for paying attention in church. So instead I slunk to the ground, and spent the rest of the speech scanning the crowd and nearby rooftops for federal agents and snipers.
I thought of that sunny morning many years ago after reading reports last week that former president Jimmy Carter had taught a Sunday school lesson to a record-breaking crowd in his hometown of Plains, Georgia the weekend after his announcement that he had cancer. The overflow was so large that they were relocated from the church grounds to a nearby high school, where Carter, not wishing to disappoint visitors, traveled and taught a second lesson. I didn’t hear any reports of congregants climbing trees, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
The passage of time can change perspectives dramatically. I am certainly not the same man I was in 1979, and neither is President Carter. But as a historian, and a history teacher, I have come to learn that the passage of time can create something rather wonderful.
When we are young, history is entirely made up of things that happened to other people – most of them long dead. But the longer we stick around, the more history includes events we experienced ourselves. Sometimes we discover that we are even included as participants.
One of the curious joys of my career as a U.S. history teacher has been teaching the about years that I actually lived. Often I found that the events most meaningful to me were not even mentioned in the textbooks. The primary sources I used for these years were not limited to instructional materials provided by educational publishers or uncovered by me on the internet. They included yellowed pages of books and periodicals I had squirreled away years earlier simply because they had intrigued me, without any thought I might someday be a teacher and use them in a class. My students’ level of personal engagement was about the same between the Reagan years and the age of Jackson. But for me, teaching those different eras was a completely different experience.
Being a history teacher has required me to live in the present while being mindful of the past. It has prompted me to see parallels, make connections, identify meaningful distinctions – and help prepare students to do the same as history unfolds along with their lives.
I remember Jimmy Carter as governor of Georgia, president of the United States, author, international watchdog for democracy, head of the Carter Center. I have shaken his hand and spoken with him as he signed a book for me. (I didn’t mention my Zacchaeus incident.) Carter has been tireless, proactive, and remarkably accessible to the public. I have often thought that if you lived in Georgia in the last 30 years, and you haven’t had a personal encounter with Jimmy Carter, you weren’t trying very hard.
It remains to be seen how history will remember Carter. Most would agree that his post-presidential career has been remarkable. But reviews of his White House years are mixed. At the end of a week of praise for Carter that came on the heels of his cancer announcement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday printed a letter that pegged him as the “second-worst president this country has ever endured.”
I remember something my sixth grade English teacher once said – one of those ideas so striking that it shook my young mind and took up permanent residence. He was mentioning a new book on an old war and remarked, “Now that the last veterans of the First World War are dying off, it will finally be possible to write an objective account of that conflict.”
Living history empowers us to judge history, and gives us a special perspective on those events that become parts of our lives. Our own history may be the only part of us that is truly immortal. But in time, it ceases to be ours. The judgment of history is never complete. There is always a different vantage point.
I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.