Those Who Fail History Class are Destined to Repeat It

I Should Have Paid Attention When I Had the Chance

First, before anything else, an apology is in order.  I am very truly sorry, Miss Montgomery, for doodling in my notebook and dreaming about my date on Friday night, instead of paying attention in your History class forty years ago.  You didn’t flunk me, but probably should have.  Anyway, if it’s any consolation, I’m trying to make up for it now.  Here’s what turned me around:

My husband and I were on vacation a few months ago, en route to the village of Cesky Krumlov, about two hours outside of Prague.  As he peppered our driver with questions about what life was like before and after the fall of communism, I sat there in slack-jawed amazement – not so much at the personal stories this local Slovak told us, but rather at the depth of knowledge my own spouse possesses about European history.  Facts and dates and political leaders and governmental rulers tumbled forth from Marc’s mouth with the same ease and confidence I reserve for reciting the names of the kids on the Brady Bunch!  Finally, when he rattled off the maiden name of the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s wife (I’m not kidding), I could stand no more.

"How on earth do you know this stuff?”  I demanded. 

He turned and looked at me with a mix of sympathy and exasperation and replied, "How on earth do you not?”

In order to understand his point, of course, you need to know that Marc and I are exactly the same age and were raised in exactly the same small west Texas town in exactly the same school district.  In other words, we were being taught exactly the same stuff – the only difference being that he (obviously) paid attention in class, and I didn’t.  The result of all this is that my husband graduated with a full working knowledge of things like cotangents and cadmium ions; whereas my academic accomplishments were somewhat more limited – which is a polite way of saying the only thing I learned was our high school fight song (something that, it turns out, really isn’t all that useful.)

Now you would think these rather rickety support beams in my educational foundation would bother me (or at the very least make me nervous about being stopped on the streets of New York and asked a question by Jay Leno) but really quite the opposite is true.  In fact, I’ve found that a certain amount of blissful ignorance can actually come in handy.  Take travel, for instance.  Without all those pesky details to slow me down, you’d be amazed at how fast I can blow through a museum.  (After all, if you’ve seen one nude statue you’ve seen them all, right?)  Besides, I’ve yet to encounter a single cathedral, fortress, monument, presidential birthplace, or royal palace in my Rick Steves guidebook that didn’t ultimately dump out into a gift shop.  Five minutes spent scanning the descriptions on the back of the postcards and voila!  Instant history lesson!

Yes sir, I had my own little system and it was working just fine for me.  And then Sophie Chotek had to come along and spoil everything.  You see, I just couldn’t get Marc’s annoying "How on earth do you not?” remark out of my mind, so two days later when we went on a tour of Konopiste Castle in the Czech Republic, where Sophie and her hubby, Franz Ferdinand lived, instead of rolling my eyes in boredom like I usually do, I challenged myself to actually pay attention to what the tour guide said.  And you know what?  It was fascinating! 

Wandering through rooms where the family ate and slept, and where the children wrote silly plays to perform for their parents (just like ours did), for the first time I saw history not as a list of dry facts and dates, but as a flow of events involving real people with real human emotions.  What’s even more striking is that I, who had never given a big fat flying green bean about this kind of junk before, suddenly saw a connection between "the past” and my own life today, and I came away much richer for the experience. 

Miss Montgomery understood all of this, and she tried awfully hard to make me understand it too, but I just didn’t get it back then.  Well I get it now, which is why forty years later I’m actually learning history. Can you believe it?  Me!

Sadly, however, I do not hold out similar hope for math.

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