How Hard Could it Be? Teacher for a day

Holly Nadler with students Morgan Michelski and Camilla Prata. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The diabolical Mathea Morais invited me to spend a session with her high school history students, assuring me that I could devote the time to any timeline in the human experience. Really? The Chinese Opium Wars? Mussolini’s Horrible Architecture?

In actuality, Mathea is anything but diabolical. She’s beautiful and brilliant and was once my beloved editor with another publication whose name shall not be mentioned. Now she teaches at the Charter School, and her invitation was kindly meant, without any idea on her part that I am, in fact, terrified of teens when facing whole gaggles of them — those underage persons who, when listening to an adult — say, myself, — relate fun stories about ghosts, or gossip you’ve written for Cosmo magazine, would present faces as blank as any phalanx of flesh-eating zombies. The inability to make them crack even the faintest smile can be depressing enough to make you wish you had one of those fake beepers you can press to beat a hasty retreat.

In advance of my stint at the Charter School, a friend who works with teens told me it helps to be low key, as deadpan as they are. Well, there’s the rub. I’m way too enthusiastic.

I screwed my courage to the sticking point or, more accurately, because I haven’t got much courage when it comes to so called “young adults,” I screwed whatever passed for courage – maybe a self-bribe of ice cream later in the day – Ben & Jerry’s dulce de leche? – and entered the halls of the charter school in West Tisbury.

It’s an enchanted place, somewhere Mary Poppins might have taken her charges, to show them an alternate reality from their bland middle class lives. The wall sags with shelves of books. An array of scarves and flags hang from rafters and windows, art is everywhere displayed. Non-conformity reveals itself in a variety of attire – from baggy old garments, to brown-blazer-cum-brown-bowler hat, to a mini-skirt over black leggings and faux leopard skin boots.

Mathea introduced me to her class of 14 kids seated around a rectangular table. My fears dissolved when I saw how engaged they were and willing to let themselves be grilled: I wanted to know, individually, which period of history had so far grabbed their attention.

But first I confided my own passion for history. “When you have that gene, it enthralls you for your entire life. One of the great compensations for getting older is you become your own museum. You’ve lived through so many cultural eras, and through your parents’ and grandparents’ eras, you can reach back to what they’d told you for firsthand knowledge of over a century of history.”

See what I  mean about over-enthusiastic?

The first student on my right was a young woman named Bean, 15, who’s fascinated by the Civil Rights, but (I later learned from Mathea) I misheard as Civil War, an event with which I have a bone or two to pick. Inside I was screaming at myself, “Nadler, go easy on the opinions,” but I couldn’t help declaim, “If only Lincoln had been controlled enough to achieve change through nonviolence! We could have let the South secede and then, like South Africa in recent years, no one, not the North, not England nor France, would have traded for their cotton until they freed the slaves!”

The kids looked at me with that expressionless stare that spooks me, so I shut up and passed on to Lucy, 15, who loves the Renaissance. I learned the destinations for the 8th grade trip are Rome and Florence. Be still my heart! I’ve got to find a way to get in on this action; what if I brushed up my Italian? Galen, 15, also admires the Italian Renaissance, in particular the architecture and art. I was tempted to make a bad quip about the Borgias and their chalices of poison, but thankfully I got a grip.

Astrid, 16, expressed a strong attachment to Island history; she descends from one of the founding families, the Tiltons. “Oh!” I cried. “I’ve seen a lot of your ancestors in our old cemeteries.” Astrid looked pleased.

Cassius, 15, ventured his favorite periods – the Vietnam War and the Russian Revolution. Holy Heroically Interesting Kid. I had to brag about my own single degree of separation from the Bolshevik Revolution: My creative writing teacher at UCLA, Bernie Wolfe, back in the 1930s in the mountains of Mexico, had served as one of Leon Trotsky’s bodyguards. How cool was that to have on your resumé?

Whoops. Blank stares.

Mateo, 14, went one better in the uncommonly curious department: He loves Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. “Think you’ll be an anthropologist?” I asked. He nodded. I said, “Good idea. We have a shortage of those, what with ninety-nine percent of kids wanting to be rappers or movie stars.”

Isabella, 15, is smitten by the early 19th century England, through the novels of Jane Austen. My kind of girl.

Camilla, 14, is riveted by Nazi Germany. Once again my opinion machine kicked into high gear. I said, “And are you trying to figure out how evil could descend on an entire nation, not just the demented creeps at the top, but all the way down to the train station workers who watched the cattle cars of people rumble through, and everyone who serviced the concentration camps? They all lived in small towns. There was no one who didn’t know what was happening.”

Camilla blank-stared me, so I zipped it up, and turned to the last of the kids, Morgan, 15, who also harbors an abiding interest in the Civil Rights era, which I also learned belatedly I’d once again misheard as The Civil War. I had more to say about that but I pictured duct tape stretched over my mouth.

Our hour was up. We parted on good terms. We all loved history. I simply had a few more decades of it under my belt, and it had made of me a bit of a crackpot. As for these kids, fear not for the future. We’re in much better hands than we’ve ever been in our own.