“Will this generation be able to turn things around and learn a valuable lesson from all of this? I hope so, but I have my doubts. The damage has been done. And as a lifelong student of history, it’s quite evident that human beings don’t learn from the mistakes of past generations.”
― Aaron B. Powell, Voluntary
Miss Kolmar’s arm jerked quickly across the board as she listed the dates of the key battles in the war. She heard pencils tapping as the students copied onto their papers what she wrote on the board, but there was also a groan. She paused and turned to look at the class.
“Problem?” she asked.
“Why do we need to know this? Who cares what happened hundreds of years ago. This is so boring.”
His hair more mussed than usual and his shoes untied, he looked at his teacher urgently. No sarcasm in his voice this time. The rest of the class stopped their note-taking at his question and waited eagerly for Miss Kolmar’s answer, for some kind of meaning to the names and dates. They, too, were bored but Jason was the only brave one. They secretly appreciated his rebellion.
“If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” Eyebrow raised, she paused and waited for his usual comeback. Nothing was easy with this kid. But when he stared at her in a sulky silence, she turned to the board to finish the list. Dates are important, she thought. How will we know who we are, why we’re here, if we don’t study our ancestors? Right?
At the sound of the lunch bell the students quickly fled the class. Defeated, Miss Kolmar sat at her desk and stared out the window.
“Can I join you for lunch?” Ms. Olive waited in the doorway for an answer.
“Sure. Come on in.”
Smiling, she crossed the room and sat in a student chair in the front row. Ms. Olive was close to retirement and held the record for the most Teacher of The Year awards. Miss Kolmar had only known her the two years since she came to the school but quickly learned that Ms. Olive was full of sage advice. “You have that look on your face. You’re pondering the earth’s great mysteries again. Didn’t you learn your lesson the last time?”
“Very funny,” said Miss Kolmar, managing a slight return smile. “Jason asked me the relevance of learning history. I gave him the same answer I give every kid who asks. But this time…” An explanation eluded her. Shaking her head, her eyes darted around the room. “This time it wasn’t a good enough answer. There must be something I can give these kids to make them understand.”
Ms. Olive laughed. “Good luck with that!”
“I’m serious. What do you tell your students? What did your teacher tell you when you were a girl?”
“Can I tell you a secret?” Her wise eyes poured into Miss Kolmar’s like a river of life. “Every generation has asked why we need to study the past. Early in my career I was also frustrated for a lack of an adequate answer. Slowly I realized that the question itself is a repetition of history and since it gets answered each and every time the same way, “learn from past mistakes so you don’t repeat them,” and yet we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, well, I found that on one hand, “why do we need to learn from the past,” is the wrong question to ask and on the other hand, “to not repeat the same mistakes,” is an answer that sets all of us up for failure.”
“Huh?” Miss Kolmar dearly loved Ms. Olive but more often than not she talked above her head. She pulled an apple slice out of her lunch bag and began to eat as she listened.
“Look at it this way,” she said, shifting in her seat. “Every time a baby is born, we have to start from scratch to teach them that this is blue and this is a square and this is a wheel and if you drop an object it falls to the floor and so on. The child learns how to count, what numbers mean, and is brought to a current understanding of the math of their time. The child learns the alphabet, how to put letters and sentences together and eventually tells stories in an attempt to give meaning to his existence. The technology to teach progresses but we always start with 1+1=2. School is simply one long exercise in “catching up” on what you missed before you were born. It’s a way of bringing everyone up to speed.”
“Okay…Is that what I’m supposed to say to Jason?” Miss Kolmar was confused.
“No. We’ll get to that. Want a cookie?” she handed Miss Kolmar a peanut butter bar with chocolate chips and coconut.
“The material part of history keeps moving forward. None of us tries to “reinvent the wheel” which is why we have a cliché’. We improve automation, we improved the wooden wheel with metal and a rubber tire, and we improve sanitation and building codes. Once something is invented, it’s invented. All that’s left is to embrace it and make it better.
“The moral code is the part of history that keeps repeating. We know that if we put a knife into someone’s heart, physically or emotionally, they will die. And yet we keep doing it. We know that if we cheat or steal, there are always consequences whether it’s sleepless nights or a broken relationship or jail time. And yet we keep doing it. We know that if we spend more than we make, we could go bankrupt or lose our house. And yet we do it anyway. We know that if a dictator decides to commit genocide against a people group, there will be retribution. And yet it keeps happening.”
Miss Kolmar looked out the window to the playground as she took a bite of her sandwich. Miss Olive paused to take a bite of soup as she pondered her words. She was in her zone now. Ask her a question and she’ll give you a sermon. This is what Miss Kolmar loved about her.
“Each of us comes to a time in our life when we must decide what to do with the moral code. It’s an individual pursuit. We call a girl naïve’ because she thinks she can subvert the moral code but she can’t; none of us can. Each of us must decide how to respond to fear, insecurity, selfishness, God, greed, anger, failure, success, abuse, loneliness, wealth, poverty, abandonment, rejection, loss, or grief. History will continue to repeat itself because we’re still dealing with these same issues since the beginning of time. We may have better farm equipment but we’re still murdering our brothers in the field out of rage and jealousy.”
“I’m not sure Jason will understand all of that,” said Miss Kolmar as she took a bite of cookie.
“No. But you can give him the flip side. You can show him a sense of adventure, of what it looks like to fight for what’s right. Instead of teaching names and dates, tell stories. Give him a hero to believe in, someone who got the moral code right and saved the day. Teach him that when we have moral apathy, kingdoms fall, wars ensue, families are torn apart, and individual happiness is non-existent.
“Do we ever learn from our mistakes?” The kids’ voices floated through the window.
“Individually, yes. Well, that’s the goal. I guess some people never learn. But corporately, no. History will continue to repeat because babies keep coming and they start learning from scratch, not from where the adults before him left off. It may have taken you and I 40 years to learn patience but then a baby is born and the learning cycle starts again with the same moral dilemmas. But even though we will never “learn” from our corporate history of moral mistakes, it is absolutely crucial that we have the freedom to make the same mistakes.
“Can you imagine what life would be like if we arrived on the scene as a newborn only to realize a few years later that the moral code had been mastered? And that the only purpose to being born was to continue to improve the material world? There would be no romance, no sense of adventure, no sense of good-overcoming-evil, no sense of accomplishment and there definitely would be no heroes. Use your history lesson to teach Jason that his ancestors are showing him the keys to the moral code; he is a hero in training.”
–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
― William Faulkner