Often times, I get the question, “Chardon, if you weren’t going to be an English teacher, what would you-” History. I would teach history. And I would teach it right.
Okay, whoa there. That’s a loaded statement. “Right?” What does that mean?
Don’t worry. I’m going to explain. It’s probably gonna be a while though. So, maybe run and get some snacks or something? Okay, let’s get started.
All great passions, like great super villains, have an origin story. I’ve found that it’s quite rare for one to just wake up one day and be passionate about a thing. It all starts somewhere. My passion for history started in my 7th grade English class. Yes, you read that right.
The year was 2005, I was 12 years old, and our assigned class novel was The Devil’s Arithmetic by: Jane Yolen. For those of you who don’t know, The Devil’s Arithmetic is a middle-grade novel that follows a young Jewish girl as she travels back in time to experience life in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. It’s an incredibly moving novel, and remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.
Let me say this: I had no idea what the Holocaust was before I read this novel. I was never taught what the Holocaust was until this novel. Seventh grade. Twelve years old. And before you start thinking, “Oh, well at least this teacher assigned this book, and you were finally, properly, educated about the topic!” No. That’s not how this went.
Yes, she assigned the book. I learned about how this group of Jewish people was taken from their village, and put into this terrible labor camp. They were brutalized and killed. It was terrible, heartbreaking, horrifying. How could this have happened to this one group of people? Where were the police? Where was the government? Were these evil people ever caught? Thank God this never happened to anyone else.
This is what I was led to believe. The book only covered this one, isolated experience. It followed this one girl and her family, from this one village, one time. It never went any broader than that. So, why would I think that this was any bigger?
A few days after we finished the novel, we walked into class, and the teacher immediately started writing numbers on the board. 6,000,000 and 1,446. The estimated number of Jewish people killed during the Holocaust, and the number of U.S. troops killed during the Iraq War (at the time). I was astonished. Six million? How? When? Where? I thought that this was just this one village? How did six million people die???
She then started talking about the horrors and devastation of war. This is when I learned that the Holocaust occurred during World War II. Again: seventh grade. Twelve years old.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of WWII. I’d learned about that before. My grandfather had fought in it. It was the worst war in all of history. It was the war Hitler started. He wanted to rule Europe. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. And then we won. This is what I was taught about WWII. They never said anything about the Holocaust. Ever.
She then started talking about how the deaths of the Jewish people, and that of our troops in Iraq, weren’t all that different. One of my fellow classmates, and a good friend of mine, interrupts her: “Are you seriously comparing the Iraq War to genocide?” She told him that, in all actuality, they were quite similar. My friend got up from his desk, collected his things, and walked out of the room. I was shocked. Why would he do that? He never acted up in class. He was never disrespectful. Why was he so mad? And what the hell was “genocide?”
That was the end of it. We never discussed anything else about the book. Never talked about the Holocaust again. Never learned what “genocide” was. We moved on to a contemporary novel about a community garden, and went about our lives. Well, my classmates went about their lives. I was stuck. I still had so many questions. I didn’t understand. But I wanted to.
That day, I went home, typed “World War II” and “The Holocaust” into google, and I read. And read. And read.
I read everything. I was beyond overwhelmed. I was beyond horrified. I was beyond anything and everything you could possibly imagine.
This was huge. This was, literally, the worst thing that had ever happened in all of human history. Everyone knew about this. There was more information about this than I would ever be able to read in my entire lifetime. I was in seventh grade. I was twelve years old. I had never heard of this before. I had never been taught about this. I knew absolutely nothing. And I was pissed.
Why the hell were we not being taught about this? This was so important, and devastating, and just, HOW??? It changed the entire course of, not only American history, but history as a whole! How was this not important enough to make it into our curriculum? It baffled me. It disgusted me.
I paid close attention to the structure of my history classes for the rest of my school career. Every year, when we would receive our textbooks, I’d flip to the section about WWII. At max, the section would be 8 pages long. At max, the number of pages dedicated to the Holocaust would be just one. Usually, it would only get a paragraph or two. And the amount of class time dedicated to the topic boiled down to a few sentences: Hitler started the Holocaust. Six million Jews died. It was bad.
The worst thing to happen in all of human history. The genocide of over six million people. Two paragraphs. A few sentences. Every. Single. Year.
Everything I know about this subject: Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Soribor, The Final Solution, Nazis, the Third Reich, Dr. Mengele’s experiments, Zyklon-B, Anne Frank, the ghettos, D-Day, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Manhattan Project, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Höss, the bombing of Dresden, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the British air raids, kristallnacht, the occupation of the Baltic nations by Stalin, what really happened at Pearl Harbor, what really happened with the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Iwo Jima, Japanese internment camps, the extermination of the Romani, the homosexuals, the disabled, the Communists, basically anyone that the Nazis didn’t like, and so, so, so much more.
All of it. I learned all of this on my own. I learned about all of this by googling every book, documentary, movie, tv-show, article, anything, that I could find about the subject, and devouring them all. I learned none of this in a classroom.
This isn’t the only instance of the utter failure of the American school system in regards to my history education either. We have Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill, and we celebrate Columbus Day every year, but they never taught us about their roles in the near annihilation of Native Americans. They had us memorize the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but never taught us that Jefferson owned slaves. They made us read The Crucible by: Arthur Miller in high school, but they never taught us about the real Salem Witch Trials.
And the Suffragette Movement? The Selma to Montgomery March? The Stonewall Riots? The AIDS epidemic? Not even a whisper. No mention of it at all.
It’s a topic that still boils my blood. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about just how much I was let down by the education system, and how utterly disappointed, and enraged, I am about it. And I went to some of the best schools in the state of Florida.
This is where my passion comes from. This is why historical fiction is my favorite genre. This is why Elizabeth Wein and Ruta Sepetys are my f*cking heroes.
I learned quickly that: If I wanted to learn history, I had to teach myself. So I did. And I had lots of help. Most of which came from YA historical fiction authors, like Elizabeth Wein, Ruta Sepetys, Ann Rinaldi, Jane Yolen, Markus Zusak, Monica Hesse, Celia Rees, and many more. They were my teachers. Their books were my classroom. I’m eternally grateful to each and every one of them.
The saying goes: “Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” So, think back on your own knowledge of history. Do you feel confident? If not, then take matters into your own hands. Pick up a book, watch a documentary on Netflix, go see the historical drama film. Hell, ask me for a recommendation. Help stave off the doom of repeated mistakes. Learn the history.